Al Bean: An Astronaut of Many Colors

By Robert Mark on June 15th, 2018

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By Micah Engber

Al Bean. I just liked saying the name when I was a kid. It was a cool name, sounded like he would be a cool guy, what a neat name for an astronaut, for the fourth person to ever set foot on the moon. If it weren’t for that cool name, at least pretty cool to a 13 year old boy, I might not know much about Al Bean. Unlike some other astronaut names I know, that are in the forefront of my brain, Captain Bean didn’t fly a lot of missions, but he sure did save the day on one of them.

Turns out Al Bean was a pretty cool guy, and one of my childhood heroes; it also turns out, that I guess I’m at the age where I’m starting to lose a lot of them. Now the last survivor of Apollo 12 is gone.

Born in 1932 Alan Bean was a Texas boy and a University of Texas graduate with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He was part of Navy ROTC at UT and after graduating, being commissioned, and getting through flight school, he flew the F9F Cougar and A4D Skyhawk. Eventually he was assigned to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, where Pete Conrad was his instructor.

Al Bean applied for Astronaut Group Two, and was rejected. That didn’t discourage him though he applied and was accepted to Astronaut Group Three along with Buzz Aldrin, Gene Cernan, Mike Collins and ten other names you may know. He was assigned as backup command pilot for Gemini 10 but never did fly Gemini; in fact he never got assigned an Apollo mission either. He ended up in the Apollo Applications Program where he worked on the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator and was the first astronaut in the tank to try it.

He had resigned himself to not fly Apollo when some luck struck him, both good and bad. You see fellow Astronaut Group Three alum and Apollo 12 Lunar Module Pilot Clifton Williams was lost in the crash of his T-38. Pete Conrad, Apollo 12 Commander remembered training Al Bean at Patuxent River and personally requested that he become Clifton Williams’ replacement. See what I mean, good and bad luck at the same time.

Al Bean was the right man for the job; in fact he saved the day. You see, Apollo 12 was struck by lightning on launch, and it knocked out the telemetry, as you can imagine quite a problem for a rocket on its way to the moon. In trying to restore telemetry the command came from ground, “… try SCE to ‘Aux”, an obscure switch that seemed to stump both Commander Pete Conrad and Command Module Pilot Richard Gordon. But Al Bean knew it! With Pete Conrad’s hand firmly grasping the abort handle Al Bean saved the mission.

Pete Conrad and Al Bean landed Lunar Module Intrepid on the lunar surface and did two EVA’s. Turns out, mixed in with all the hard work, there was also quite a bit of fun on the moon. One of the mission objectives was to collect some material from the Surveyor program, an unmanned two year NASA mission that demonstrated the feasibility of soft landings on the moon pre-Apollo. Al Bean had smuggled a camera timer on board Apollo 12 so he could take a photo of himself and mission Commander Pete Conrad in front of the Surveyor. Something that was done as a practical joke for NASA scientists as they knew nothing about the timer. But when the time came to take the picture, he couldn’t find the timer, and the photo was never taken. When he did find the timer, just before boarding the Lunar Module for departure, he just tossed it away over his shoulder.

The timer isn’t the only thing Al Bean tossed away on the moon. He’d worn a silver astronaut pin for six years. As an astronaut that completed training but had not yet flown a mission he was not entitled to a gold pin. Knowing he would be awarded his gold astronaut pin upon his return to earth Al Bean tossed his silver one into a lunar crater.

There were a few other little ditties that I could retell. Some Playboy Bunny photos attached to the lunar check list for example, but this is a family show.

Al bean didn’t have another space mission until 1973 in Skylab 3, the second manned mission to Skylab. During that time he spent 59 days in orbit, performed a spacewalk, and even tested a prototype of the Manned Maneuvering Unit. It’s said that his Skylab crew accomplished 150 percent of its pre-mission goals.

Although appointed backup spacecraft commander for the US crew of the Apollo-Soyuz Project, he never flew in space again after Skylab. As a Captain he retired from the Navy in 1975 but stayed on with NASA for quite some time afterwards as a civilian, in Astronaut Candidate Operations where he had the unofficial title of Chief Astronaut.

I always felt that Al Bean had a heart. Like I said, I could hear it in his name; I thought he was a cool guy. Turned out I was right.  He was in line to fly some of the first space shuttle missions but chose not to when he retired from NASA in 1981. In an unselfish gesture he decided there were so many younger astronauts that could do that job that he gave up his opportunity to go back into space to give them a chance.

For relaxation and his own personal growth Al Bean took art classes. When he retired from NASA he focused on painting, and his paintings are beautiful. He painted moonscapes, some of him and Pete Conrad on the moon, paintings of the photos he wanted to take, but couldn’t due to the lost timer. He incorporated real moon dust in his paintings and used some of the tools he brought back from the moon to paint them with. When asked about those paintings he once said that if he were painting as a scientist he would have painted in grays but as an artist he could “… add colors to the Moon.” He sure did.

For Jetwhine, here in Portland, Maine,

This is your Main(e) man,

Micah

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