IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The right-brained astronaut

Apollo 12 moonwalker

Alan Bean in the

documentary "In the

Shadow of the Moon."

As a Navy test pilot and an astronaut, Alan Bean had plenty of the Right Stuff. But sometimes he sounds as if he wishes he had a little more of the Left Stuff. "A lot of things I think about come from the right side of my brain. And for most of the other guys, most of the things they think about come from the left side," the 75-year-old artist and one-time moonwalker told me. "And it got me in trouble at NASA at first."

Bean retired from NASA long ago - but that other-side-of-the-brain perspective still comes through loud and clear, whether he's talking about the sullied image of the astronaut corps or his fears about the future of exploration. He may sound like an aw-shucks kind of guy, but he doesn't pull any punches. "I just say it how I think it, even though other people will say, 'That's weird,' because it's from the other side of the brain," he said.

Our conversation, which took place just before Labor Day weekend, focused on the newly released documentary about the Apollo moon effort, "In the Shadow of the Moon."

Bean was the fourth man to set foot on the lunar surface, during Apollo 12 in 1969, but in the movie he projects the folksy image you'd associate with your retired neighbor down the street. Only this neighbor happens to be one of only 12 earthlings who walked on another celestial body - and in case you ever somehow forget that, he's got a gallery full of paintings that focus on the otherworldly scenes he and his fellow astronauts saw close-up more than three decades ago.

Alan Bean
Apollo 12 astronaut painted this

self-portrait, titled "That's How It

Felt to Walk on the Moon."

That's the most overt manifestation of Bean's right brain at work - the artistic, emotional side that can sometimes clash with the analytical, serial-computing, checklist-marking activity on the left side of the brain.

"To do art well, you've got to be kind of holistic and look at everything at once," Bean said. "It's different. You don't stay alive as an astronaut or a pilot looking at everything at once. You better be a serial kind of guy."

Bean recalled that there were many times during NASA meetings when others thought his ideas were coming out of left field (or should that be right field?). He also wasn't the kind of guy whose ego could fill a room - which made him feel a bit out of place among all those Type A personalities.

Even during our conversation, Bean would occasionally wait to hear what I had to say about a particular topic before weighing in. "What do you think?" he asked at one point. "You've got a better feel for the big picture than I do."

But if you give him a chance, Bean is only too willing to paint the big picture for you - about the meaning of Apollo, the current state of space exploration and what might (or might not) lie ahead. I've put together a 30-minute podcast that encapsulates our conversation. Among the highlights:

  • Bean said the biggest message he drew from the Apollo experience in general, and from "In the Shadow of the Moon" in particular, was that people could achieve impossible dreams under the right conditions: "That is something, a message that needs to be said on a daily basis to kids. ... The 400,000 people that worked on Apollo ... are the luckiest people around, because they got a chance in their lifetime to work on an impossible dream. Most people never get the chance."
  • Bean got steamed up over the claims of heavy alcohol use by the astronaut corps in the hours before flight, as I noted in a previous Cosmic Log posting. He acknowledged that not all astronauts are angels, as exemplified by Lisa Nowak love-triangle scandal. "Maybe the girl with the diaper was doing bad stuff," he said. "I don't know. But I do know about this other stuff. Nobody would ever do any of that."
  • He voiced worries about NASA's plan to return to the moon - a plan that the agency's current administrator, Mike Griffin, has called "Apollo on steroids." Bean said he saw two main challenges ahead: "One, they're not going to get all the money we got. So how do you do it on not so much money? And the second thing is, how are you going to make it safer than the shuttle to go back to the moon? ... Already they've got a challenge that's, I think, bigger than Apollo right off the bat."
  • Bean feared that Americans were becoming overly risk-averse, to the point that the political will to explore could be choked off: "If Apollo 13 happened nowadays, or that pad fire on Apollo 1, I don't know what the people in America would do. I don't know whether they'd say, 'Let's just give it up, it's too risky.'"

"In the Shadow of the Moon" captures an age when attitudes were different, Bean said:

"This is one thing about this movie that I think is nice, to let people see how optimistic people were and how they worked hard to make this dream come true. And it did come true. ... We can do those things today, but it isn't going to be easy. We're going to have Apollo fires, we're going to lose people. If you want to explore the cutting edge of what we know and what we can do, it's dangerous."

That's spoken like a true right-brainer. For the left-brain perspective on NASA's future, you need look no further than today's lecture by Griffin, kicking off a series commemorating the agency's 50th anniversary. In his talk, Griffin noted that NASA was at the center of a "space economy" valued at $180 billion and growing

"NASA opens new frontiers and creates new opportunities, and because of that is a critical driver of innovation. We don't just create new jobs, we create entirely new markets and possibilities for economic growth that didn't previously exist. This is the emerging space economy, an economy that is transforming our lives here on Earth in ways that are not yet fully understood or appreciated. It is not an economy in space - not yet. But space activities create products and markets that provide benefits right here on Earth, benefits that have arisen from our efforts to explore, understand, and utilize this new medium."

Which argument holds more weight with you when it comes to putting a value on the space effort? Economics or exploration? Left brain or right brain? Of course, both factors come into play, plus the national prestige that comes with pushing the frontier. What will happen, for example, if China follows through on its own aspirations to send humans back to the moon?

"I think the No. 1 thing that would help us, if we wanted to be in more of a hurry than we are, would be if China did something," Bean told me.

But in the words of the moonwalker himself, "What do you think?" Feel free to add your comments below.

Download the 30-minute audio interview with Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean, plus a 30-minute chat with Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. And stay tuned for an upcoming conversation with Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 scientist-astronaut and former U.S. senator.