The Sunday Conversation
9:39 am
Sun July 20, 2014

Astronaut Who Walked On The Moon: 'It Was Science Fiction To Us'

Originally published on Sun July 20, 2014 12:20 pm

In November of 1969, astronaut Alan Bean became the fourth man to walk on the moon. His mission, Apollo 12, arrived at the moon a few months after Apollo 11 made the first moon landing. That historic event celebrates its 45th anniversary Sunday.

Apollo 12 got off to a dramatic start: A storm rolled in as the rocket was scheduled to launch. Bean, with fellow astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon, sat inside the spacecraft while the bad weather threatened the operation.

"We were thinking, 'Let's launch!' We knew that if we didn't launch within just about three or four hours, you had to wait a whole month, so we wanted to go," Bean tells NPR's Arun Rath. "We didn't think much about launching during the storm ... we hadn't ever trained for that."

The countdown and launch went off as planned. "Everything was going great for almost the first minute," Bean says, "and then we were struck by lightning two times."

The men inside the cockpit didn't know they'd been hit by lightning; all they knew was that warning lights had turned on and they'd lost power from their fuel cells. But Mission Control heard reports of the lightning bolt and realized what had happened.

"We were trying to figure what to do, they were trying to figure out what to do, and working together we solved the problem," Bean says.

After one revolution around the Earth, Gordon, Conrad and Bean prepared to leave orbit and head towards the moon. But no one knew exactly how much damage had been done by the lightning strikes, and Mission Control had to decide whether to continue towards the moon or abort the mission.

"They apparently talked it over at the highest levels and decided, 'Well, if it did do something wrong to the spacecraft, like the parachute system or something like that, if we had them enter now they'd get killed earlier than if we sent them to the moon and let them do whatever else they're doing there and then come back 10 days later,' " Bean says. " 'And if their parachutes don't work then, well ... At least they've had 10 days in a great adventure."

Still, Bean says, when they were making the trip back home, the risk of parachute failure didn't bother them much.

"I'd have to say I didn't think about it one time between heading to the moon and about an hour prior to entry," Bean says. "And we're going through all the checklist, getting in position to make the entry and all that ... And I think either Pete, Dick or I said, 'Well, I wonder how those parachutes are doing?' And then someone else said ... 'Well, we'll find out in about 55 minutes!' "

"And that was it. Nobody was afraid, nobody was anything. It was just part of the way of life of being an astronaut. If you couldn't have that attitude you couldn't do the job, so it was OK. Whatever it was, it was OK."

Between the stormy takeoff and the ultimately safe return home, Bean got to walk on the surface of the moon. Much of his work there didn't allow for contemplation.

"I would say I had zero philosophical thoughts at that time," Bean says. "I was operating on a timed checklist that we've been trained to do, to try to maximize every really minute on the moon. [There's] no telling what that costs per minute to be on the moon — millions and millions of dollars — so you wanted to make every one of 'em productive."

But when he was traveling from one exploration site to another, he had more time to take in the magnitude of what he was doing. "It was hard for me to believe," he says. "I would look down and say, 'This is the moon, this is the moon,' and I would look up and say, 'That's the Earth, that's the Earth,' in my head. So, it was science fiction to us even as we were doing it."

Bean has gone on to have a career as an artist; the former astronaut incorporates moon dust into his paintings.

He says painting has been his hobby ever since he was a test pilot, before he became an astronaut, and that he wanted to use his art to tell a story few people can tell.

"I had the good fortune and the gift to be one of the 12 men to walk on the moon," Bean says. "If I learned to paint well enough ... then I could leave behind, when I'm gone, stories that would be lost to history forever — images of things that we did."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ALAN BEAN: I thought in my lifetime, we'd be establishing a base on the moon, maybe, by now. And certainly, even though I might not be alive when we landed on Mars, I'd be watching crews train and the rockets being built. And of course, you can see none of that is happening.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

No. We're not living in the future envisioned by astronaut Alan Bean back in 1969. In November of that year, he became the fourth human being to walk on the moon. Today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing, Alan Bean recalled how his mission Apollo 12 almost ended in disaster moments after launch. Captain Alan Bean is our Sunday conversation.

BEAN: Well, we had a storm rolling in. We were sitting in a - you know, inside our spacecraft - Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and I. We were thinking, let's launch. We knew that if we didn't launch within just about three or four hours, you had to wait a whole month. So we wanted to go. And we didn't think much about launching during a storm (laughing) 'cause we hadn't ever trained for that and thought about that much. People just assumed we wouldn't.

And so we counted down. We launched. Everything was going great for almost the first minute. And then we were struck by lightning two times. We didn't know we were struck by lightning in the cockpit. We got all sorts of warning lights, lost the electrical power from our fuel cells. We were trying to solve the problem. Mission control - they got a report from the launch site that they saw a big lightning bolt come out of a cloud and hit the launch pad. And they said, those guys got struck by lightning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Roger. We copy. Pete, you're looking good.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Good (unintelligible). Good thrust on the second (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: We've got a problem here. I don't know what happened. I'm not sure we can get hit by lightning.

BEAN: You know, we were trying to figure out what to do. They were trying to figure out what to do. And working together, we solved the problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5: OK, I have (unintelligible). And Alan's got the fuel cells back on. And we'll be working on the (unintelligible).

RATH: Can you describe what you felt, heard and saw when you left Earth's orbit?

BEAN: Well, once again, we're wanting to go to the moon. We've done one revolution around the earth where we got our computer ready to guide the rocket towards the moon. And we were ready to go. And we were just thinking, OK, we know that we've been hit by lightning. Mission control is going to have to make a decision on whether to launch us to the moon or not.

They apparently talked it over at the highest levels and decided, well, if it did do something wrong to the spacecraft, like the parachute system or something like that - if we had them enter now, they'd get killed earlier than if we sent them to the moon and let them do whatever else they're doing there and then come back 10 days later. If their parachutes don't work then, well, I guess they don't. At least they've had 10 days and a great adventure.

RATH: What did that mean - just skipping ahead for a moment - when you were going through reentry, were you scared about those parachutes opening?

BEAN: We thought about it. I would have to say, I didn't think about it one time between headed to the moon and about an hour prior to entry. And we're going through all the checklists, getting in position to make the entry and all of that other - and I think either Pete, Dick or I said, well, I wonder how those parachutes are doing. And then someone else said - maybe me or Peter or Dick said, well, we'll find out in about 55 minutes.

And that was it. Nobody was afraid. Nobody was anything. It was just part of the way of life of being an astronaut. If you couldn't have that attitude, you couldn't do the job. So it was - it was OK. Whatever it was, it was OK.

RATH: Now, can you recapture that moment for us, Captain Bean, when you climbed through the door, down the ladder, onto the moon?

BEAN: I would say, I had zero philosophical thoughts at that time. I was operating on a time checklist, as we'd been trained to do, to try to maximize every, really, minute on the moon. You know, no telling what that cost per minute to be on the moon. Millions and millions of dollars. So you wanted to make every one of them productive.

The only time I thought, wow, this is the moon up there, way above us there - 240,000 miles away is the Earth - was when I was running from exploration site to the next one 'cause there, you're just running along going to the next place you want to investigate. And you can have a time to think. And I can remember I - it was hard for me to believe. I would look down and say, this is the moon. This is the moon. Then I would look up and say, that's the earth, that's the earth, in my head. So it was science fiction to us, even as we were doing it.

RATH: You've had a post-astronaut career as an artist. Could you talk about how you use moon dust in your paintings?

BEAN: I had the good fortune and the gift to be one of the 12 men to walk on the moon. And my hobby has been, since I was a test pilot, painting. Maybe if I learn to paint well enough - I don't know if I could, but maybe if I did - then I could leave behind when I am gone stories that would be lost to history forever - images of things that we did that were - at least I thought were interesting. Stories that not only I knew, but other astronauts knew.

So that was my decision to you know say, I love being an astronaut. I've been training to do this my whole life. But I really have a responsibility to go to do this other job, which I then had been doing for the last 33 years or so. But each painting does have moon dust in it.

RATH: Astronaut, artist and moonwalker Captain Alan Bean. It's been an honor to speak with you. Thank you so much.

BEAN: It's been a pleasure.

RATH: And if you want to hear about that peculiar way Captain Bean works the moon dust into his paintings, take a listen at NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RATH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.