Alan Bean Isn’t an Astronaut Who Paints—He’s an Artist Who Used to Be an Astronaut

Alan Bean has a problem. He can’t decide how to paint planet Earth. Should the land appear darker than the water? Or should the ocean outshine the continents? The former astronaut ponders the matter over sunrise at his Houston home. After a breakfast pastry, he puts on an apron bearing the Apollo 12 insignia and lifts his paintbrush to a canvas.

Forget Tom Wolfe’s notion of The Right Stuff astronaut if you want a clear picture of Alan Bean, BS ’55, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus.

This moonwalker passes morning after morning standing before an easel in his living-room-turned-art studio, surrounded by 36 years of his own brushstrokes, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looking down on him from the walls they adorn. It’s the same discipline that got him to the moon in 1969.

Though he is one of only 12 souls to have walked on the lunar surface, Bean, now 86, insists that when he traversed the Ocean of Storms he was merely moonlighting. “I don’t think much about Apollo now because I’m busy doing this,” he says, pointing to a row of acrylic paints and brushes neatly lining the top of an art filing cabinet. “I made up my mind when I left NASA that I wasn’t going to be an astronaut who painted. I was going to be an artist who used to be an astronaut.”

Today his paintings hang in private homes, businesses, and galleries—and anyone who wants one can join a nearly year-long waiting list. In July 2009, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. hosted one of Bean’s exhibits, Painting Apollo: First Artist on Another World, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.

To own a Bean painting is to possess a slice of history. Bits of heat shield from the Apollo 12 command module and fragments of moon-dusted patches from his spacesuit texture every canvas. “Art should be of its time,” Bean says, “so I asked myself: Why am I using Earth tools to create texture when I have moon tools?” In the early 1980s, not long after he started painting full time, Bean called the National Air and Space Museum to get the hammer back that he used on the moon to break rocks—a tool he was supposed to leave in space to lighten the load coming home but didn’t. Now he uses that hammer to etch grooves into each of his compositions. As his style has evolved, his work has grown more extraterrestrial. Many of his latest paintings reveal the marks of his moon-boots.

Bean was born in 1932 in Wheeler, Texas, to churchgoing parents who earned a modest living. From an early age, he loved aircraft, and as a boy he used to build and paint model airplanes. Bean maintained his interest in aviation through moves to Louisiana for his father’s job and then to Fort Worth, Texas, where he went to high school. As a teenager, he joined the Naval Air Reserve and later went to The University of Texas at Austin on an NROTC scholarship. In 1955, he graduated from UT with an aeronautical engineering degree, entered the Navy, and went to flight school. He eventually became a test pilot and NASA selected him for its third astronaut group in 1963.

“UT changed my life,” says Bean, who carried his class ring all the way to the moon. “In my career, I’ve competed for flights and jobs with people from every major college, and I’ve met people smarter than me, but I’ve never met anyone who had a better education than I did.”

It was Bean’s engineering background combined with his work ethic, attention to detail, and ability to get along with others that helped him earn spots on the backup crews of Gemini 10 and Apollo 9. Later he served as lunar module pilot on Apollo 12.

“If you look back on Apollo 12, it was the first mission to do an actual pinpoint landing,” says Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, Johnson Space Center historian. “Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11 wasn’t exactly sure where they landed.”

Bean, the rookie of Apollo 12, drew praise for saving the mission from disaster when lightning struck the spacecraft 36 seconds after liftoff, causing a power surge, instrument malfunction, and garbled telemetry data. John Aaron in mission control famously called up, “Flight, try SCE to Aux.” Only Bean knew where to find that switch. “Apollo 12 might not have landed if he hadn’t,” Ross-Nazzal says.

Following his moon exploits, in 1973, Bean commanded Skylab 3, the second manned mission to America’s first space station. “His crew is known as the supercrew here at NASA,” Ross-Nazzal says. “They achieved 150 percent of their mission objectives and made it hard for the next crew to keep up.” Bean completed one spacewalk on that record-setting 59-day flight, and when he retired from NASA in 1981, he had logged more than 69 days in space.

That Bean spent his first career using mostly his left brain and his second career using mostly the right surprises few who know him well.

“He’s always leaned toward the artistic side,” says his daughter, Amy Bean, BA ’85. When Bean married his first wife, Sue—they met competing on the gymnastics team at UT—they didn’t have much money for furniture. “Dad bought some Philippine mahogany and built a dresser, a headboard, and some end-tables for their home,” Amy says. Once, the couple attended an art show where the paintings were too expensive to buy. “Dad came home and said, ‘I can do better than that. I’ll just paint some things for our walls,’ and he did,” Amy says.

Bean’s art career prospered for the same reason he reached the moon. “I’ve taken many art classes over the years,” he says, “and I never was the best artist in those classes. But I am, without a doubt, the best artist now because I work at it.” Like his favorite painter Claude Monet, who painted drab grain stacks in rich reds, oranges, blues, and purples, Bean had to learn how to play with color, to paint the moon not as he’d seen it, but in magnificent strokes of green and indigo.

“He’s the best space artist in the world now,” says Walter Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7 and enjoys a burger with Bean at Miller’s Café in Houston once a month. “He changed his career more than any astronaut and has had the biggest post-Apollo success.”

The elite club of Apollo astronauts got smaller last November when Bean’s friend and Apollo 12 crewmate Dick Gordon died at age 88. That makes Bean the last living member of that voyage; Pete Conrad, mission commander and Bean’s mentor, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1999. Though only five moonwalkers remain, all of the Apollo-era astronauts are vividly remembered. The likenesses of these frontiersmen hang on the walls of Bean’s studio, his sweat and commitment to excellence behind each depiction.

Bean says he became an artist because he had received the gift of going to the moon and he wanted to give back through his painting. “I want to be to space exploration the same thing that Remington and Russell are to the West,” he says. “I want to be the gold standard for paintings of humans off this Earth.”

Decades spent perfecting moonscapes have made it hard for Bean to paint his own planet. Earth has that frustrating mix of land and water. Still, every morning he begins again. And as he has so many times before, Bean will complete this mission too.

Photos by Eileen Wu.


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