The artist who walked on the Moon

written by Richard Taylor

professor of physics, psychology and art at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Original Article Resources ©NAURE

Artist on the Moon -TeRra Magazine3

In November 1969, when I was six years old, my father pointed to the Moon and told me that a man was walking on it. I looked up at the silver sphere and wondered what he was doing up there in that remote, crater-riddled land. I later learned that his name was Alan Bean, and that he was the fourth of only 12 humans so far to walk on another world. Even in that select group, he was unique: he was the only one to record what he saw on canvas and in paint. In May, he died at the age of 86.

As my interest in space travel grew, I read about the trajectory that led Bean to his Apollo 12 Moon landing. Earning an aeronautical-engineering degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1955, he soon achieved his childhood dream of becoming a Navy test pilot. His instructor was Pete Conrad, later a fellow member of the Apollo 12 mission and Moon-walker, who became his closest friend. Inspired by the “sights, sounds and smells of high performance flying machines”, as Bean put it, they hatched their plan to ride the biggest flying machine of them all.

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Standing 110 metres tall, the Saturn V remains the most powerful rocket ever flown. Four months before the Apollo 12 launch, one of these behemoths had carried Neil Armstrong and his crew to the first Moon landing. But whereas Armstrong took off on a sweltering summer’s day, Bean, Conrad and fellow astronaut Richard Gordon sat on their rocket engulfed by a winter thunderstorm. Thirty-six seconds into their launch, the unthinkable happened. The Saturn V was struck by lightning — twice. “I looked up at the display that had all of the caution lights and there were more on than I’d ever seen in my life,” Bean recalled. Seconds away from aborting the mission, he managed to reboot the affected systems. The astronauts’ nervous laughter could be heard all the way to orbit.

Previous astronauts behaved with reserve. Bean gave the public a glimpse of the more human side of being a space explorer. Armstrong commenced his historic landing with a deadpan “See you later”, descending to the Moon’s surface in tension-building silence. Bean sounded like an excited tourist. His commentary seemed to touch on whatever popped into his mind: from the view outside his window (“Looks good out there, babe, looks good”) to the relief of seeing his landing spot in the Ocean of Storms (“There’s that crater right where it’s supposed to be”), to complementing Conrad on his flying skills (“You’re beautiful”).

Once Bean had ignited my six-year-old imagination, I was on my way into the life scientific. I drew make-believe planets, the real Solar System, spaceships and alien cityscapes — even how aliens might play cricket without gravity. By 1984, close to finishing my physics undergraduate degree, I was — like him — grappling with competing desires to pursue science and art.

Meanwhile, the world was busy celebrating the 15th anniversary of the first Moon landing. Television screens were flooded with Apollo astronauts reminiscing about their epic journeys. Seeing the blue Earth hanging like an oasis in the inky darkness filled many of them with a deep spiritual connection to the Universe. Bean, more down-to-Earth, appreciated all that the Moon lacked. “Since that time I have not complained about the weather a single time … I’ve not complained about traffic,” he said. “When I got back home, I’d go down to shopping centres and … just watch the people go by and think, ‘Boy, we’re lucky to be here.’”

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Bean’s scientific legacy is fascinating. He brought back a Moon rock known as KREEP (potassium, rare-earth elements, phosphorus). Its composition led to a new model of lunar formation: the giant-impact hypothesis. Still being refined by current research, this pictures the Moon forming during violent collisions between Earth and one or more planet-sized objects.

Bean flew once more for NASA, in 1973: he spent a record-breaking 59 days orbiting Earth as commander of the space-station mission Skylab 3. In 1981, he left the agency to work out how best to tell his story to the world. How could he describe what it was like to hurtle home at 40,000 kilometres per hour, or to place his thumb in front of Earth and block from view everything he knew? He found his answer in painting. He even mixed Moon dust into his acrylics, and used his Apollo hammer and boots to, in his words, “sculpt a textured surface unique in all of art history”. (Many of Bean’s works are reproduced in his 2009 book Painting Apollo: First Artist on Another World.)


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Bean’s art is important in other ways. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders’s stunning photograph Earthrise, taken from lunar orbit, is rightly viewed as iconic. But Bean’s art goes further: it adds emotion to the extraordinary scenes he witnessed. Self-described as one of the more fearful astronauts, he was well aware that death was always near. That comes through in his paintings. Whether we see astronauts deploying equipment, the Service Module flying across the lunar surface, or Earth peeking above the horizon, there’s a feeling of being far from home — in terms of both distance and difficulty. The loneliness in these works reminds me of Frank Hurley’s photographs of Ernest Shackleton’s epic 1914–17 journey to the Antarctic.

Above all, Bean’s paintings serve as an antidote to that foolish idea that emerged in the 1980s: that our brains are wired to be either artistic or scientific. Inspired by his example, I went on to be a professor of both art and science. He showed that it was a simple matter. You just follow your dreams.

About the Astronaut

Al_Bean_during_EVA_training_in_the_Flight_Crew_Support_Building-NASA astronaut, terra magazine, terrahan

Alan LaVern Bean (March 15, 1932 – May 26, 2018) was an American naval officer and naval aviator, aeronautical engineer, test pilot, and NASA astronaut; he was the fourth person to walk on the Moon. He was selected to become an astronaut by NASA in 1963 as part of Astronaut Group 3.

He made his first flight into space aboard Apollo 12, the second manned mission to land on the Moon, at age 37 in November 1969. He made his second and final flight into space on the Skylab 3 mission in 1973, the second manned mission to the Skylab space station. After retiring from the United States Navy in 1975 and NASA in 1981, he pursued his interest in painting, depicting various space-related scenes and documenting his own experiences in space as well as that of his fellow Apollo program astronauts. He was the last living crew member of Apollo 12.


About the Writer

Richard Taylor is an expert in chaos theory, fractals, and the relationship between art and science. At the University of Oregon, he is a professor of physics, psychology and art, and the director of the Materials Science Institute. Richard’s research focuses on “bioinspiration” in which artificial systems benefit from using nature’s patterns (fractals and chaos). His two biggest projects are 1) using bio-inspired retinal implants to restore vision to victims of retinal diseases and 2) using bio-inspired fractal images to reduce people’s stress levels. He also uses computer analysis to study and authenticate art works. Richard is considered the leading expert on the artist Jackson Pollock.

Images from campus on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon.

Academic Areas:
Chaos Theory, Fractals, Art and Science, Authenticating Art, Jackson Pollock



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