The humble astronaut

Alan Bean performing a spacewalk during the Skylab 3 mission. (credit: NASA)

In October 1998, Alan Bean made an appearance at the National Archives in Washington, DC. He had a new book out, and this was part of his book tour. Bean gave a talk in the early evening. But it wasn’t a typical Apollo moonwalker talk. Bean said that he was never that good a pilot, or a student. He was always in the middle of his class. The guy he looked up to was named Pete Conrad, who was at the top of his class and a great pilot. Bean also said that he wasn’t one of the best astronauts. There were better ones, but he worked hard to master the tasks he was given. When he took up painting, he wasn’t all that good either, although he improved with practice. Even then, in 1998, Bean did not think he was a great painter, about average he said. The reason he painted the Moon was because there were a lot of other people who could paint better than him, but none of them had been to the Moon, so he recognized his strengths and focused on that. But Bean admitted that he didn’t quit, and the message he wanted to convey to the couple hundred people in the room was that you shouldn’t quit. You don’t have to be the best, you just have to not quit. Bean wasn’t giving a motivational talk, nor was he bragging: he referred to himself as an ordinary guy who was lucky enough to walk on the Moon. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

When Bean finished his talk everybody in the room loved him. We all wished that he was our grandfather. He radiated warmth and grace and positive mental energy. Bean agreed to sign autographs, to shake hands, and most of the people in the audience lined up to greet him. He had a way of looking people right in the eye and listening when they talked to him, making them feel like the famous guy wanted to know who they were, and wasn’t simply waiting around for the opportunity to start talking again. After this went on for at least 45 minutes the National Archives employee who was hosting the event announced that it was over, they had to empty the room because the Archives was closing. Alan Bean pointed at the thirty or so people still standing in line and said that he wanted to meet these people, who after all had come out on a fall Washington evening to see him. A brief expression of annoyance crossed the handler’s face—she clearly wanted to go home—but she was not going to argue with the kindly grandfather who had walked on the Moon and now painted it. And so Alan Bean continued to shake hands and to accept business cards and handshakes from the guy who said he worked on electronics at NASA Goddard, and the accountant who worked at the Pentagon, and the mother who wanted her oblivious 10-year-old daughter to meet a moonwalker. This was the pre-selfie era, but for most of the people there, simply saying hello to Alan Bean was probably enough to leave them smiling for the next few days. Bean had that effect on people.

Alan Bean died on May 26, 2018, at the age of 86. He was in many ways an enigma because he defied expectations, the astronaut who didn’t have the definition of “the right stuff,” but nevertheless accomplished amazing things. At times he seemed mystified as to how any of it had happened, but very happy that it had.

Ordinary rocketman

When Edmund Morris wrote Dutch, his biography of Ronald Reagan, he bizarrely found Reagan so impenetrable that he invented dialogue and even events that had never happened. But as George Will wrote in a devastating review of the biography, Reagan was “an open book who read himself to the country.” At least one review of James Hansen’s biography of Neil Armstrong, First Man, complained that Hansen failed to penetrate Armstrong’s rather plain and almost dull facade. Armstrong was a great pilot, but he wasn’t complex, and when people labeled him “private” or “reclusive,” they implied that he was hiding something. But those who knew Armstrong would dispute that he was hiding anything, he just didn’t want or need any more public exposure. It was that simple; Neil Armstrong was that simple.

For whatever reason, many people are inherently suspicious and distrusting—the simple and straightforward answer is never good enough for them, and they are always looking for a deeper “truth.” But some famous personalities—Reagan and Armstrong are good examples—were pretty much the people they appeared to be. There’s no hidden story or darkness or mysterious complexity to them. Alan Bean seems to have been of similar construction; there was no artifice to him.

When he became an astronaut, Bean adopted an attitude he had learned from fellow astronaut Bill Anders: work hard and you’ll be noticed. But after awhile he realized that this was not getting him anywhere. He was not jockeying for flight assignments like the other astronauts, and that may have hurt him. Bean found himself assigned as a backup crewmember for Gemini as that program was winding down. Then he got assigned to the backwaters of the Apollo Applications Program, which Pete Conrad called “Tomorrowland” and meant that if Bean was ever going to fly, it would be many years later, and not to the Moon.

Pete Conrad wanted Bean on his Apollo 12 crew along with Dick Gordon, but Deke Slayton said no and so Conrad got C.C. Williams instead. But Williams was killed in a T-38 crash, something all too common in the 1960s. Many years later, Bean worked hard to eliminate T-38 crashes in the astronaut program and was successful. After Williams’ death, Conrad asked for Bean again and got him. There is a scene in the magnificent HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon where Bean is sitting at a desk writing notes and Conrad walks through the door and says “Al, you got a minute? I was just talking to Deke… How’d you like to go to the Moon with Dick and me? Think you can give up all this excitement?” The actor playing Bean just stares at him, speechless. Conrad takes that as a yes. The setting is fictional—the real encounter happened outdoors on the flight line at Ellington Field in Houston—but Bean later told people that it was not that far from the truth. He had been stunned when Conrad approached him. He never expected it. He didn’t understand it. But of course he went.

What did Pete Conrad see in Bean? Rocketman, the 2005 biography of Conrad written by his widow Nancy Conrad and Howard Klausner, doesn’t explain why Conrad picked Bean for his crew. Andy Chaikin’s 1994 book A Man on the Moon provides a little more information. Conrad had been Bean’s flight instructor at test pilot school in the Navy and had recognized that although Bean wasn’t a natural-born pilot, he worked hard at everything he did. Conrad intervened back then to get Bean a better flight assignment and had later recommended that Bean apply to be an astronaut. During Apollo, he twice pushed to get Bean on his crew, so clearly he respected him. We will never know exactly what Conrad saw in Bean, but it probably wasn’t just his tenacity. Chaikin wrote that Conrad and Gordon were restless and competitive, whereas Bean—or Beano, as they called him—was quieter and more thoughtful; other astronauts fixed cars and went drinking, Bean learned to paint. It seems like Conrad somehow recognized that Bean’s different personality perfectly complemented his own, added something to the crew that it did not have, and Conrad realized that they would make a good team. Maybe it was because Conrad was the ultimate alpha dog and Bean was a beta. Or maybe it was because of the same reason that some people become lifelong friends—they just recognize in others something that is compatible with themselves.

During Apollo 12’s flight to the Moon, the three men put Bean’s cassette tape of pop songs into the player and while The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” blasted out of the speaker, they grabbed hold of the metal struts and danced.

Train, train, and when you finish training, train some more

Bean did have several traits that probably helped him get recognized along the way. One of them was that he didn’t refuse tasks or assignments, and didn’t complain about the unpleasant ones. Another was that he worked hard at whatever job he was given. In an interview, Bean explained that many astronauts viewed training as a task and a finite activity. If they had to learn how to take star readings, they trained until they were proficient and then stopped. Bean, on the other hand, would gain proficiency and then keep training, staying in the simulators even after the other astronauts had left. He wanted to get really good, particularly at the things he did not have a natural talent for.

Another personality trait Bean had that probably endeared him to some people in the astronaut office—but alienated others—was that he had a straightforward, common-sense approach to many issues. He wasn’t territorial or stubborn or complained about things that didn’t matter. Andy Chaikin explained in his book that while many astronauts hated the flight surgeons, Bean’s attitude was that there was no reason to be mad at doctors who were just doing their jobs. Similarly, astronauts complained about having the media around during training, but Bean argued that if the cameras didn’t get in the way, the astronauts would never notice them. In a series of interviews Bean conducted with the Johnson Space Center history office, Bean mentioned similar situations where he took a common-sense approach rather than trying to defend astronaut turf. For example, in the 1970s when NASA began looking at performing approach and landing tests for the Space Shuttle, Bean argued that they should have Edwards Air Force Base perform the flight tests, because Edwards had people who knew all about flight testing. But the JSC leadership believed it was a JSC program and therefore JSC should be responsible for flight test. Bean made no friends at JSC with that argument.

The ordinary artist

Bean also agreed to take on new tasks if he was asked, such as running the astronaut training program and later serving as acting head of the astronaut office, where he undertook the effort of reducing T-38 accidents. Bean’s agreeable personality may have endeared him to the head of the astronaut program, George Abbey. In one of the JSC oral history interviews, Bean recounted how Abbey noticed that Bean wasn’t flying the T-38s as often as required and called him in to ask why. Abbey was planning to have Bean command a shuttle mission until Bean gave him the bad news: “I’m planning to leave here in several weeks, and I didn’t want to use the gas money,” Bean told him. Abbey asked him where he was going and Bean informed him he was going to be an artist. Abbey sat so far back in his chair in surprise that he banged the window. “Can you earn a living at that?” Abbey asked him. “I don’t know, but if I can’t I’m going to go to work at Jack in the Box so I’ll have my energy. And then I’ll learn to do it.” Bean had the same attitude toward painting as he did toward making star sightings: just keep working at it.

Bean did make a living at his painting, eventually selling paintings for tens of thousands of dollars. His paintings were technically proficient, although not highly artistic. Bean rejected the idea that an artist could express emotion through painting. Nevertheless, he was able to express what he saw on the Moon in ways that no other astronaut could, including the sheer joy of being on the Moon. He even painted Dick Gordon—who spent the Apollo 12 mission orbiting the Moon—down on the surface with him and Pete, the three buddies, together. Those paintings probably made Bean one of the greatest communicators about that unique experience. The astronauts and their wives were often scripted during the Apollo program, but Bean had the type of personality that led him to go off-script. Maybe that’s something else that Pete Conrad saw in him.

Bean must have had an ego. You cannot be successful unless you believe you are capable of achieving your goals and disbelieve your detractors. But ego is only one aspect of a personality, and for Alan Bean it was deeply imbedded alongside a sense of his abilities and limitations compared to those around him, and a humility that was rare among the astronauts. If you have seen various Apollo astronauts talk you realize that they’re all unique. Jim Lovell has a bit of a poet in him. Harrison Schmitt is the scientist. Dave Scott was the test pilot who became fascinated by the science. Frank Borman was the no-nonsense commander. Of course, they are more complex than that, but those traits help distinguish them from each other. One trait that most of them have shared, however, is the art of the humble brag, how to tell a story that might seem self-deprecating, but ultimately reflects well on themselves. One of the Apollo astronauts, now deceased, used to tell a story about how he felt guilty that he was in the space program rather than flying alongside his squadron mates in Vietnam. But his buddies eventually told him that what he was doing was more important than what they did, because he was risking his life for the future. That story was undoubtedly true, but it also served to polish the astronaut’s reputation: even my buddies say that I’m great.

When the Lunar Module Intrepid blasted off the Moon on November 20, 1969, Pete Conrad was at the controls, flying the vehicle. They didn’t fly straight up to Dick Gordon in Yankee Clipper. They had to circle the Moon first, aligning their orbit. And on the far side of the Moon, out of radio contact with Earth, Conrad told Bean to relax with his work. “Why don’t you quit after this midcourse and relax and enjoy it? You can take a minute and fly this vehicle.” And so Beano took the controls and for a few minutes he flew Intrepid, once again given the opportunity by his commander and good friend, Pete Conrad.

Bean didn’t believe he was great, mostly just lucky. We are lucky we had him while he was here, and now that he’s gone, we have his paintings.


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