Alan LaVern Bean, Naval test pilot, astronaut, and artist, was born on March 15, 1932, in Wheeler, Texas, in the eastern Panhandle near the Oklahoma border. His parents were Arnold Horace Bean and Frances Caroline (Murphy) Bean. His father was a scientist who worked for the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Consequently, the family moved to several cities throughout Texas. Like others who became astronauts, Bean grew up with a passion for flying airplanes. “I built model airplanes of balsa wood and paper and glue,” he later recalled. “Some were powered with thin rubber bands and others with small noisy gasoline engines. By the time I was in high school, model airplanes of all shapes and sizes were hanging by thin wires from the ceiling of my room.” He graduated from R.L. Paschal High School in Fort Worth and received a Naval R.O.T.C. scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin. There, he was a member of the Delta Kappa Epison fraternity and a member of the student branch of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences, for which he served as secretary in 1955. He earned a degree in aeronautical engineering there in 1955.
Commissioned an ensign in the United States Navy, Bean became a Navy pilot and was stationed at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida. He served four years in a jet attack squadron before he attended the United States Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland, and was subsequently assigned to the Service Test Division. His life changed when, like many of his fellow pilots, he learned about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its work on developing spacecraft. He was intrigued by the idea of flying higher and faster and decided that he wanted to become an astronaut. He applied to the space program, and was accepted by NASA in October 1963. He was among fourteen applicants selected as the third group of NASA astronauts.
As an astronaut, Bean worked closely with Charles “Pete” Conrad, who, when he had an opening on his crew, suggested that Bean take the job. (Bean had previously served as a member of the backup crew to Apollo 9.) Conrad, Bean, and Richard “Dick” Gordon (all of the U. S. Navy) formed the Apollo 12 crew, which was in the rotation to make the second manned lunar landing mission. Apollo 12 flew in November 1969. This was Bean’s first spaceflight.
The closeness and camaraderie of the crew members was evident throughout its training and mission. Conrad and Gordon were best friends, and they both made Bean feel welcome. They drove matching gold-colored Corvettes with customized nameplates that read “CDR” (commander, for Conrad), “CMP” (command module pilot, for Gordon), and “LMP” (lunar module pilot, for Bean).
Conrad and Bean flew the lunar module, call sign Intrepid, to a site on the moon called the Ocean of Storms. On November 19, 1969, they landed Intrepid near Surveyor 3, an unmanned spacecraft placed there two years earlier. Gordon remained aboard the command module, call sign Yankee Clipper. Bean became the fourth man to walk on the lunar surface.
Conrad and Bean collected more than sixty pounds of moon rocks for review and experiments. They also trekked to Surveyor 3 and took samples of material from that probe as well as conducted geological studies and installed a nuclear generator for the purpose of powering future experimental equipment. When the Intrepid returned to orbit and docked with the Yankee Clipper, the hatch was opened, but Gordon closed the hatch again and said lightheartedly, “You guys ain’t gonna mess up my nice clean spacecraft!” It was a legitimate concern; nobody wanted floating moondust to contaminate the Yankee Clipper’s environmental control system. Gordon asked them to remove their dirty spacesuits and put them into storage bags. Conrad and Bean did so before floating, naked, back into the command module and putting on a change of clothes.
Apollo 12 was a successful mission, as was Bean’s other spaceflight, as commander of Skylab 3, from July to September 1973. The mission included Bean, Jack Lousma, and Owen Garriott and was the second manned Skylab mission. Bean performed a spacewalk during the fifty-nine days (a world record at that time) he was in space. Bean spent a total of sixty-nine days in space, including thirty-one minutes and thirty-one seconds on the moon, during his career with NASA.
With the rank of captain, Bean retired from the U. S. Navy in 1975. He resigned from NASA in 1981 to become a professional artist. He had an interest in art that had begun years earlier, when he had enrolled in beginning drawing and watercolor classes at St. Mary’s College in Leonardtown, Maryland, while he was a test pilot at the Naval Air Test Center. After retirement, Bean learned from painters Glenn Bahm, Lajos Markos, and Evelyn Stebbins in Houston. He also studied under Neil Boyle, a California artist, and attended art workshops given by Jim Christensen, Ron McKee, Howard Terpning, and others.
Working from his home studio in Houston, Bean’s art focused on scenes that he, actually having been there, could interpret and create in a unique way. He painted scenes from the Apollo 12 mission as well as from other lunar missions. In one instance, he interviewed Neil Armstrong, who demonstrated how he descended down the lunar module ladder and into history with the first step onto the lunar surface. Bean needed six to eight weeks or longer to create a painting. While he described the moon as “mostly black dirt,” he commented that he wanted “it to be the most beautiful black dirt that’s ever been painted in the history of art.”
Bean also created his portraits by painting with a “uniquely textured surface” and using some of his astronaut tools, including his hammer and a replica of his astronaut boot. He added a trace of moondust and particles from the heat shield of the Yankee Clipper command module, traces of mission patches, and insignias he wore aboard the spacecraft. Bean, whose paintings range in price between five and six figures each, thought of himself not as an astronaut who painted, but as an artist who was once an astronaut. “I see myself beginning a little branch of the tree of art that’s called, ‘Art off this earth.’ I’m just at the very bud of this branch. It will grow as space exploration continues,” Bean said. In 2009, on the fortieth anniversary of the first moon walk, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum held an exhibition titled Painting Apollo: First Artist on Another World, which featured approximately forty-five of Bean’s paintings.
Bean was honored with many awards during his lifetime, including two Navy Distinguished Service Medals, the Robert J. Collier Trophy, Federation Aeronautique Internationale’s Yuri Gagarin Gold Medal, and the Rear Admiral William S. Parsons Award for Scientific and Technical Progress. He was the author of My Life as an Astronaut (1988) and Apollo: An Eyewitness Account by Astronaut/Explorer/Artist Alan Bean (with Andrew Chaikin, 1998), and he served as illustrator for Mission Control, This is Apollo: The Story of the First Voyages to the Moon (2009).
Alan LaVern Bean married Sue Ragsdale on April 19, 1955. They had a son and a daughter but divorced in 1976. He married Leslie Gombold on July 15, 1982. Bean died on May 26, 2018, at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston after a brief illness. He was eighty-six years old. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Friend and fellow astronaut Harrison Schmitt described Bean as “one of the greatest renaissance men of his generation—engineer, fighter pilot, astronaut and artist.”