Astronaut Turned Artist

Astronaut Alan Bean left NASA in 1981 to pursue a career as a full-time artist. Since then he?s been painting space scenes that chronicle some of the most important moments in NASA?s history. If you saw the story in the December issue of The Artist?s Magazine, you already know how Bean made the transition from astronaut to artist. Read on to find out the stories behind three of Bean?s paintings, which he describes in his own words.

An American Success Story (acrylic, 46×33)

I painted astronaut John Young as he stood proudly on the moon, but for a while it didn?t look as if he and Charlie Duke would even land there at all. Earlier, as they had been orbiting the moon in their lunar module and preparing for descent, a call came from Ken Mattingly in the command module reporting an unexpected oscillation in the backup steering system. They all knew that if this oscillation prevented the backup system from controlling the rocket properly, all three crew members would have to return to Earth as soon as possible. This would be the only prudent course of action because if the primary system should fail at any time there would be no way to steer the rocket engine. Apollo 16 and her crew would orbit the moon forever.

Immediately engineers and technicians at mission control in Houston and at other key locations were alerted. Could they determine if the oscillations would prevent the backup steering system from doing its job? Records were searched, simulations were run and tests were conducted. In less than six hours the results were in. The oscillations would damp out as rocket thrust built up at engine start. The mission could continue. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Moon Rovers (acrylic, 38×26)

Astronaut Jim Irwin is doing just what tourists do around the world, taking snapshots of the wonderful and exotic places he?s visiting. In this photograph he?s immortalizing his partner, Apollo 15 crew commander Dave Scott, proudly riding in their new car, the lunar rover.

Looking like a stripped down dune buggy, the rover weighs 455 pounds on Earth but only 76 moon pounds. In fact, Jim and Dave will occasionally lift it up and turn it around rather than drive in reverse. There?s no way they can turn around in their stiff space suits to see where they?d be going. The rover can reach speeds of almost 10 miles per hour on level ground with a total range of about four miles. The tires are made of woven piano wire. The TV camera and umbrella-like antenna beam their activities back to Earth.

A Delicate Balance (acrylic, 36×24)

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong is trying to prevent the American flag from falling over into the lunar dust while most of the people on Earth are watching him on television. It just isn?t as easy as it was in practice just a few days ago.

His biggest frustration is that he can?t shove the flagstaff as deep into the soil as he?d like to. “Six to eight inches was about as far as I could get it in.” Armstrong commented later. “It was fairly easy to get it down the first four or five inches, but it gets hard quickly.” Adding to this difficulty is his discovery that although the soil is hard to penetrate straight down, it can be shoved sideways rather easily. Unfortunately, the flagstaff is unbalanced because of the telescoping metal rod that sticks straight out from the top. The rod serves as a sort of curtain rod to support the flag since there?s no wind on the moon to blow the flag out.

Neil finally found a solution. “I pushed the flagstaff into the ground at a slight angle such that the center of gravity of the overall unit would be above the point at which the flagstaff was inserted in the lunar surface. That seemed to hold it all right.” It sure looked “all right” to all of us watching in wonder in front of our televisions sets, Sunday night, July 20, 1969.

For information on prints of Alan Bean?s work, visit Bean also has a new book out, Apollo: An Eyewitness Account (Greenwich Workshop Press, $45).

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