POULTNEY, Vt.-Apollo 12 was the second NASA mission to land humans on the Moon in November 1969. Of 12's three crewmen- astronauts Pete Conrad, Alan Bean and Dick Gordon-only Conrad and Bean took the Lunar Module to the surface of the Moon, landed, and walked on the cratered Ocean of Storms. Bean also spent two months in the weightless environment aboard Skylab 3 in 1973. He had planned to pilot the space shuttle but decided to retire in 1980, one year before the first shuttle flew in space.
Apollo 12 made space history a long time ago. Best remembered for lightning striking the giant Saturn 5 rocket on takeoff, Apollo 12 is also notable for its pinpoint landing next to the abandoned Surveyor 2 robot spacecraft and for returning a lunar rock that chemically matched some tektites found on Earth.
Only Alan Bean and Dick Gordon survive, both men on the cusp of 80. Pete Conrad, one of the most colorful NASA astronauts from the old days, died in a motorcycle accident a few years ago.
Today, only Alan Bean actively speaks about the historic mission and what it was like to be the fourth man on the Moon. An accomplished artist, Bean paints lunar scenes both realistic and fanciful; his canvases are highly collectible and command thousands of dollars per head at art auctions.
Alan Bean, a decorated U.S. Navy pilot and aerospace engineer, was in Vermont recently to accept an honorary doctor of fine arts degree at Green Mountain College.
This writer had the honor of meeting Dr. Bean and chatting with him at Green Mountain College about the past and future of NASA and humans in space. At that time, I presented Dr. Bean with a copy of my book about the history of lunar science titled "Inconstant Moon" (Xlibris/Random House); the book discusses unusual lunar rocks found by the Apollo 12 astronauts:
Q. Do you believe extraterrestrials ever visited the Earth?
A. No. In all the billions of miles of space, we're it. Unlike on T.V. where aliens have landed here or people are waiting for the aliens to come by-in the real world, they'll never come by. Here we are; we're all there is in this portion of the universe. It's up to us to make the Earth a great place.
Q. You use realistic and fantasy art as a means of exploring your off-Earth experiences. Why?
A. I have seen things that few other humans have seen. I went to another world and I am an artist. So, when I left NASA in 1980, I wanted to me true to my creative skills and tell the stories of humanity's first adventures off the Earth through visual art. I can celebrate the first time humans went to another world, the Moon. Yes, we will do it again when we send humans to land on Mars for the first time. This is what humans do. We explore new worlds. I explore these new worlds through my art.
Q. Regarding the Apollo 12 and Skylab 3 missions, what are your fondest memories?
A. Well, not all crews get along like professional teams. But I was lucky on Apollo 12 in 1969 and Skylab 3 in 1973. I can honestly say I went on a flight to the Moon with my two best friends, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon. It was scary at times, but I had these two great guys by my side. Jack Lousma and Owen Garriott were with me on SL-3. They were the rookies and I was the veteran, the commander of that mission. I passed on to them what Pete and Dick taught me about doing the right things as an astronaut. I tried to model Pete as Skylab commander. And we were up in space for 59 days doing a lot of good science.
Q. What kind of public support do you see today regarding human spaceflight?
A. Hey, I thought everybody wanted the most out of our space program for the good of the nation. But I look around now and it's disappointing to me that some politicians are not thinking the same things. They're not doing and voting what is best for the country. They do other things. I've been very shocked.
Q. Is America on the right track today regarding humans venturing into space?
A. I don't believe so. NASA spent a lot of time with the best minds in the scientific community to come up with a plan to return humans to the Moon and go beyond it. They had the best hardware under development, the best people, to get the job done. So, for someone to just drop in, spend a little time thinking and saying 'well, I think I'll change things', is pretty arrogant. It's not in the best interest of NASA. I have a lot of confidence in the methodology of NASA to do the best things with the time and money available. My heart is in what NASA wanted to do and not with the people who think they have a better idea. Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, and many others, agree with me on this.
Thank you, Dr. Bean.