Alan Bean: First Artist on the Moon

Marianne Dyson, June 2018

Apollo 12 Astronaut and Artist Alan Bean who died on May 26, 2018, kindly granted an interview to this former flight controller who was considering a new career as a children’s writer back in 1994. After all these years, I find his words still inspiring, and I hope you will also.

The May 1994 issue of Odyssey Magazine included my interview and photo of Alan Bean. Photo © Marianne Dyson.
The May 1994 issue of Odyssey Magazine included my interview and photo of Alan Bean. Photo ©Marianne Dyson.

First Artist on the Moon: An Interview with Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean

by Marianne J. Dyson

As a boy growing up in Texas, Alan Bean fell in love with flying. He built precise model planes and hung them from the ceiling of his room, “like birds dressed up for a party in shiny decals and brightly colored paints.” Through a determination to always do his best, Bean became a Navy pilot and then a NASA astronaut. In November 1969, he stepped out of the Apollo 12 lunar module and became the fourth man to walk on the moon. He returned to space in 1973 as Commander of Skylab 3, the world’s first space station. Although he has not returned to space for over two decades, he returns often, in spirit. Bean left NASA in 1981 to pursue a new career as a space artist. He recently took out from work on his latest painting at his home studio in Houston, Texas, to talk with ODYSSEY.

The switch from being a test pilot and astronaut to being an artist could be called the ultimate career change. Was the transition difficult?

Well, being a test pilot and an astronaut is a lot more dangerous. You have to have intense training and a certain personality and work habits to be successful and survive. That’s not the case in art, where anyone can create what they feel is art. However, it takes longer to be a good artist. It took me about six years from the time I became an astronaut until I felt I was a really good astronaut. It’s taken me 12 years until I felt I was a really good artist.

You’ve ridden rockets to the moon and walked in space and received all kinds of recognition and awards for those achievements—how do those thrills compare to the rewards you get as an artist?

They’re really about the same. I think the feeling of a job well done on a daily basis, no matter what the job is, is one of the most important things that a person can feel to have a happy life. Awards come from time to time, but effort comes on a daily basis.

I have heard that there is real moon dust in your paintings. Is that true?

I wanted to put moondust in them, but I didn’t have any moon rocks; the government has all of those. But one day I realized NASA gave me the patches from my suit—the NASA patch, the American flag, the Apollo 12 patch. They were dirty with moondust, so not I cut up those patches into little bits and I sprinkle them around in the paintings. There are minute quantities [of the patches and moondust] in all of them.

Which painters that ODYSSEY readers might be familiar with have influenced your work?

American painters Charles Russell and Frederick Remington have inspired me. French artist Claude Monet is my favorite artist. When you look at Remington’s and Russell’s paintings, you can figure out the story they’re telling of a frontier and adventures that occurred on it. If I want to tell the story of this [space] frontier, I’ve go to be able to paint my spaceships as well as they painted their horses; I’ve got to be able to paint my astronauts as well as they painted cowboys and Indians. Now, Moment doesn’t tell stories as well, but he does things that are beautiful to look at. I try to combine some of Remington’s and Russell’s storytelling and realism with some of Monet’s color variety and beauty in my work.

Imagine that in 50 years, you’re still alive and our nation builds an art museum on the moon. What would you say if people ask to name it after you?

I’d say it would be very appropriate because I am the first artist to have painted the moon. Maybe some day they will have an art museum on the moon, and I hope they have a painting or two of mine in there. I’ve never really thought about it. But I think someday it will happen.

END published interview

I still have the audio cassette tape of this interview which of course had to be significantly cut to fit on two pages in a children’s magazine. Not included in the article is perhaps my favorite quote of Alan Bean: “The moon is gray, but I have the desire in my heart to paint these beautiful colors.”

In the yet-unfinished [in May 1994] painting of the moon, the artist [Alan Bean] uses a cathedral of colors similar to those he thinks Monet, his favorite artist, might have used. Photo © Marianne Dyson shown as published in Odyssey Magazine.
In the yet-unfinished [in May 1994] painting of the moon, the artist [Alan Bean] uses a cathedral of colors similar to those he thinks Monet, his favorite artist, might have used. Photo ©Marianne Dyson shown as published in Odyssey Magazine.
I sent him a copy of the magazine after it was published and included a sonnet that he inspired me to write. To honor his advice to put in the effort required to become a “good” writer, I chose the most difficult form of a poem I could think of, one that requires precise rhythm, meter, word choice, and rhyme: a Petrarchan sonnet. (This poem is included in Space Poems.)

The Artist's Moon

a Petrarchan sonnet by Marianne Dyson


The moon is gray, but not for those still free -

to dare the red of love, to stroke the sky

with flaming orange and silver ships that fly

beyond the pallid dawn of history.

The dreamers' moon is cast in rosy light,

a canvas bright with crystal beads and hopes

that lure the spirit high upon its ancient slopes

and paint its hills with hues of future sight.


The hero's brush disturbs the settled lust

of youthful goals, long patient human souls

who yearn with passion's palette for the day

they thrust aside the current veil of dust

and see creation's art, a mural whole

with fingerprints of God in lunar gray.

Writing about Space

Analog readers, watch for my guest editorial on Gender Parity in the July/August issue.

My next book, coauthored with Buzz Aldrin, To the Moon and Back: My Apollo 11 Adventure, a pop-up book from National Geographic, is available for preorder now from Amazon. Look for it in stores in October.

Speaking about Space

I offer programs for school-aged children up through senior citizens, as well as science workshops for students and teachers. Please consider me for Author Visits.

After a talk with students at Laredo Public Library on May 15, 2018, I was interviewed by Telemundo TV. The clip aired during the local evening news. Photo by Rick Carrillo.
After a talk with students at Laredo Public Library on May 15, 2018, I was interviewed by Telemundo TV. The clip aired during the local evening news. Photo by Rick Carrillo.

Thursday, June 7, vendor fair participant, Setting the Trend, Librarians as Leaders conference. Clear Falls High School, 4380 Village Way, League City, TX.

September 21-23, Science GOH at FenCon XV in Dallas. See their website for program details. Writer GOH is Larry Niven.

October 2, Instructor for first class of Women and Space course at Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

October 12, Featured speaker on Friday at noon at the National Science Teachers Association conference in Reno, Nevada.

See my contact page for a complete appearance schedule and photos from previous events.

Slowing Down from Space

Marianne Dyson May, 2018

Many people mistakenly think that there is no gravity in space, and thus all that’s needed to reach space is to attain a certain altitude. But this is NOT true! Earth’s gravity at the surface is defined as 1g. A simple calculation* shows that the gravity at 200 miles (320 km) altitude is 90 percent of what it is on the surface, or 0.9g.

The reason spacecraft stay in orbit is not because there isn’t any gravity, but because they have attained the speed necessary to balance gravity’s pull. They must go up high enough to avoid running into mountains and the upper atmosphere which would slow them down.

A bit of algebra** proves that the velocity required to stay in an orbit does not depend on the mass of the object, only the mass of Earth and the object’s distance from the center of Earth. For orbits of 200 miles up, the speed is 17,500 mph (28,200 kph). (Note, it takes more energy to speed up a larger mass, but the speed that must be attained is the same.)

To drop to a lower orbit or return to Earth, a spacecraft doesn’t just “step off” a platform in the sky: it must slow down. This happens naturally over time because, though thin, the Earth’s atmosphere extends far into space. This is what happened to Skylab and more recently, to the Chinese space station. To stay in orbit, spacecraft must be periodically boosted.

The key to a safe return from space is to slow down, and slow down gradually.

Slowing down begins by flipping the spacecraft so that the engines are pointed forward, into the direction of travel. To slow down completely would require about the same amount of fuel as it took to reach orbital speed in the first place. On an airless world like the Moon, that is the only way to slow down. But because of Earth’s atmosphere, spacecraft need only fire their engines enough to slip into the atmosphere and then let friction do the rest.

But friction between objects at high speed produces a lot of heat. (Try rubbing your thumb and finger together slowly and then faster and note the difference in heat.) Meteors enter the atmosphere at very high speeds and quickly turn into fireballs. To avoid a similar fate, spacecraft use heat shields to protect the hull and crew. Heat shields can be made of what are called ablative materials such as used during Apollo that burn off and take heat with them; or they may take the form of insulating tiles such as were used on the space shuttles. (Damage to the heat shield is what caused the destruction of Space Shuttle Columbia.)

space shuttle
The space shuttle orbiter was covered with tiles to insulate the aluminum skin underneath from the high temperatures produced by the friction of passing through the Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds. Image: Lockheed Martin.

Once the spacecraft has passed through the upper atmosphere and lost much of its speed to heat, it is still going very fast. Unless it slows down more, it will hit the surface like a speeding car crashing into a wall. To slow down further, winged craft like the space shuttle increase their time in the lower atmosphere by executing “S” turns and then deploying parachutes after touchdown. Capsules like the Russian Soyuz use parachutes while still in the air and fire retrorockets just before touchdown.

So when it comes time to return to Earth from your trip in space, remember to slow down!

cups
Prove that heavy objects do NOT fall faster than light ones, but compact objects DO. Take two identical plastic containers with lids. Put a flashlight battery in one. Seal and drop them both. They hit the floor at the same time. Then take two identical sheets of paper. Crumple one and leave the other flat. Drop them. The compact one hits first. If you did this experiment on the Moon, they would strike at the same time. (Watch an Apollo demonstration.) The speed of falling does not depend on mass. In an atmosphere, objects with more surface area fall more slowly than compact objects.

*The equation for gravity is g=G x M/D² where G is a constant, M is mass, and D is the distance. GM/D² for the surface divided by GM/D² for 200 miles up ends up with all terms except D cancelling out, i.e. 4000×4000/4200×4200=0.9.

**For calculating orbital velocity (v=√GM/r) see Gravitation Calculating Orbital Velocity of a Satellite, Step-by-Step Science.

 

 

Writing about Space

Analog readers, watch for my guest editorial on Gender Parity in the July/August issue.

My next book, coauthored with Buzz Aldrin, To the Moon and Back: My Apollo 11 Adventure, a pop-up book from National Geographic, is available for preorder now from Amazon. Look for it in stores in October.

Speaking about Space

I offer programs for school-aged children up through senior citizens, as well as science workshops for students and teachers. Please consider me for Author Visits.

Nevada Space Center
I was inducted into the Nevada Space Center Hall of Fame on May 5, 2018. Prior to the evening event, I received a T-shirt from Challenger Center Flight Director Jenny McFarlane and former NASA Flight Director Paul Dye. Photo: Nevada Space Center.

Saturday, May 12, 1:00-4:30 PM. Speaking on “How to Publish a Book” at Houston Writers House. Event sold out, but watch for another session to be scheduled.

Tuesday, May 15, 9-10 AM Passion for Space, 10-11 AM, Children’s program, Laredo Public Library.

Tuesday, May 22, author visit to The Westview School.

Friday, May 25, panelist, Comicpalooza, George Brown Convention Center, Houston.

Thursday, June 7, vendor fair participant, Setting the Trend, Librarians as Leaders conference. Clear Falls High School, 4380 Village Way, League City, TX.

September 21-23, Science GOH at FenCon XV in Dallas. See their website for program details. Writer GOH is Larry Niven.

See my website’s contact page for a complete appearance schedule.