With boyish excitement, the first time we met, astronaut Al Bean told me about one of his favorite moments of his mission—when he took the controls of the Apollo 12 Lunar Module and piloted the spacecraft. Mission Commander Peter Conrad had offered him the spacecraft, even though it wasn’t in the flight plan. Al was afraid of what the folks in Mission Control would say, but Pete pointed out that they were on the far side of the moon and no one would know. As Al said, Pete was always thinking . . .
Alan Bean passed away last weekend at the age of eighty-six. He, together with the other eleven who walked on the moon, are members of one of the most select groups of all time. Over the years, from an initial stint working at NASA in the late seventies, to being an associate producer on Al Reinert’s documentary For All Mankind in the mideighties, to shepherding a special-edition laserdisc and later DVD for Janus/Criterion, I had the privilege of meeting many of them. They were all what you would expect: strong, powerful, and confident. Al was all these things, but he was also different, soft-spoken and introspective. After he retired from NASA (he flew one Skylab mission after his Apollo moon-landing flight), he became a painter. He felt he had a unique perspective, having left the earth and traveled to the moon, and wanted to paint what he had seen and experienced.
I reached out to Al Bean to work with us on our special edition of For All Mankind and he graciously agreed, with the provision that he would only talk about his paintings. I was obviously more interested in his space travels, but having no choice, I agreed. I met Al at a sound studio in Houston, and he brought along the slides of many of his paintings. As he projected each one, he would begin, “this painting reminds me of . . . ,” and then tell the most beautiful stories of his travels in space. It was perfect.
Al painted the voyage to the moon as he saw it. One of my favorite of his stories was about Gene Cernan, who would be the last man to leave his footprints on the moon, during the Apollo 17 mission. Al described a meeting with Gene when Gene said he wished that he had written his daughter’s name, “Tracy,” on the surface on the moon, so it would have lasted there forever. Al quickly said back to Gene, no problem, he would just add it to the painting. And he did that in the painting that would be titled Tracy’s Boulder. Years later, I met with Gene and he recounted the story a bit differently—one of the last things he did on the surface of the moon, he said, was write Tracy’s initials in the dust.
We’ll probably never know whether Commander Cernan’s daughter’s initials are carved in the dust of the moon or whether he used Al Bean’s painting to accomplish what he had wanted to do, but it doesn’t matter. In Al’s paintings, a series of voyages come alive, as do the men who made them. His paintings blur the area between the reality of the missions themselves and the myths surrounding them, and that is just a bit of their beauty.
Al Reinert, who over the years has become my friend, sent me a short email on Saturday that said, “My favorite moonwalker, the most down-to-earth of them all. Put ketchup on his potato chips and wasn’t embarrassed about it.”
The last time I saw Al Bean we did some additional work for the Blu-ray release. We did some recording and then had lunch at his favorite spot—Chili’s. He was a regular, and everyone knew him there. It was very sweet. He was a simple, humble man who lived the most amazing adventure of our time first-hand.