Alan Bean is a really lovely guy. He’s witty. He’s fun. He’s funny. He’s impish, which seems an odd word to use about a moon-walker. He was and still is a painstaking professional, but I like the fact that some of the guys on the moon liked to play about and kick back a bit. The humour is only part of it though: he was changed by walking on the moon, changed in profound ways it seems, but he wears that profundity lightly and with grace.
There were a few hundred of us in a shabby, battered, over-lit, over-heated school hall. It was grubbily mundane. I liked that though because it threw the focus of the evening firmly on the man and what he had to say. I wonder what he made of it.
He spoke for about an hour about our place in the universe, about NASA and the Apollo missions, about the fact that the first man on the moon could have been Pete Conrad or David Scott, Thomas Stafford or Gordo Cooper, James Lovell or John Young, that NASA simply pushed for the next step and the next step each time, and the fact it was Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 was hapenstance. He spoke about the training they did, learning to become geologists and rehearsing all the tasks of each of the EVAs in Iceland, Mexico and Hawaii. He spoke about training to be in 1/6th gravity and what is is like to be there. He suggested that the Olympics should be held on the moon, simply because it would be such fun for the athletes to jump around in 1/6th G. He spoke about fear and how he handled it, about being so very far from home. He spoke with enormous generosity about his fellow astronauts. He told us about the work NASA is doing, on a shoestring, to try to get us back there.
The Apollo 12 team were close, closer than many of the Apollo crews perhaps, and one gets the feeling that Pete Conrad and Alan Bean in particular, as well as being supreme professionals, were … naughty. The painting which moved me the most was Bean’s fantasy of the three of them, Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and himself, together on the moon. Dick Gordon was the most experienced pilot of the three and never landed on the moon – instead he flew the command module which was their only way back. In Bean’s picture, the three of them are posing for an official portrait on the surface of the moon – a fantasy which allowed his friend to share the experience. If you look closely you can see that Bean is holding up two fingers behind his friend’s head, as goofy pals have done since people started taking snapshots.
His art is interesting. It is strongly narrative and highly figurative; chocolate box art telling specific stories. He strives to convey emotion as well as to record events, which is difficult when you cannot show faces and when all the space-suits look the same. His colours are becoming more impressionistic as he develops as an artist; the skies are softer, the moonscapes redder and browner as he conveys the emotions of the event. But what he portrays is – well – alien. Our planet has an atmosphere and is covered in vegetation, so we are used to landscapes in pretty colours. Turner experimented with painting night scenes and Whistler experimented with compositions in black and grey, but most artists deal in light alone, not light and darkness. I suspect that Bean would seem to be a better artist if his subject matter were not visually so bleak. But it is a matter of astonishing serendipity that one of the dozen test pilots who walked on the moon had it in him to transform the experience for us into art.
Bean spoke of the wonder of being here; the wonder and beauty of our day-to-day world. He said that he had come back and never complained about the weather again. He walked on a different world, it was an experience which he has spent the past 37 years coming to understand, he describes it (amongst other things) as “fun”, but while he was in space it seems he was agonisingly homesick too.
He took questions, and distracted himself into answering them fully and at length. We queued for a while for an autograph, the one I went with and I, but the hall was due to close at 10:00 and the queue had not moved at all – I believe it was because Bean was chatting away at length with the first few people who reached the table.
Of all the moon-walkers, I am glad to have seen Alan Bean and heard him speak.
(Apologies for the quality of the photos – it was a large hall and I was using my mobile phone. However they are important to me, which is why I have posted them here.)