If you went around and visited the 24 men who have been to the moon and you reminisced with them about their expeditions, you would be surprised at how differently each one remembers the experience. Not so much the technical details—though the voluminous scientific and engineering data gathered were closely monitored and are well recorded, the men who went have largely forgotten all that.
What sticks in their minds after fifteen years is whatever impressed them personally, uniquely. Pete Conrad, for instance, remembers a tape of country music he brought along on the Apollo 12 mission. When he hears “San Antonio Rose” today, it triggers a flood of translunar memories: where they were in the flight plan, how far away from the earth, what he was doing, watching, thinking, when he heard that particular tune. For Conrad the music gave the voyage personality and character.
All but one of the Apollo astronauts have long since retired and scattered. They have sought identities apart from each other, often drastically new, downright eccentric identities. A few are successful entrepreneurs, a few are typical midrange executives, others are semifailures too confused to cope or recover. A couple are gentlemen farmers, one is a small-town doctor, one is a former U.S. senator. Two are full-time witnesses for Jesus, while another preaches mind over matter, spoon bending, and astral projection. One is dead from cancer, and another, Alan Bean, has become a painter.
What Alan Bean remembers most about his expeditions is what he saw; he can talk for hours about the fantastic sense of space and the subtly shifting colors and otherworldly textures of the moon. Now a full-time artist, Bean has forsaken the homage and respect that were his due as a senior astronaut and adviser to NASA, choosing instead to devote his life to an odd, almost obsessive pursuit—painting the moon as he saw it.
Bean has always been visually oriented, attracted and moved by the way things look. He recalls his first airplanes by their color schemes: red and black checks, blue and silver stripes, elaborate piping or decals. Like many other astronauts, he built model airplanes as a boy and was already dreaming of flying at an early age. Unlike most boys, though, he spent as much time painting his models as building them, laboring over the details and thinning his enamels for just the right texture. When his father joined the service in World War II, Bean became fascinated with wartime aircraft; after he finished each model, he hung it from the ceiling of his room in Temple, and the room was soon clouded with planes.
Bean was in junior high when his family moved to Fort Worth. By the time he graduated from Paschal High School, in a middle-class enclave upwind from the stockyards, he had chosen his career. He wanted to be a Navy fighter pilot, to make hair-raising pinpoint landings on lurching aircraft carriers. Of all the kinds of flying, the Navy’s was the least routine, the most nerve-racking, the deadliest. In 1950 he entered the University of Texas on a naval ROTC scholarship to study aeronautical engineering. While at UT, Bean became engaged to a fellow student, Sue Ragsdale, whom he married in 1955. Later that year their son, Clay, was born.
Bean survived flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station (where the attrition rate was 50 per cent) and earned his naval aviator’s wings after advanced training in Beeville. He then spent four years in Jacksonville, Florida, flying F9F’s in Jet Attack Squadron 44. It was all-weather, anytime, anywhere flying, and he loved it—couldn’t get enough of it.
Usually the next challenge for a hot-stick jet-jock was test pilot school. Bean was accepted at the Naval Test Pilot School, in Patuxent River, Maryland, in 1960. After a year of training, learning to fly all different kinds of planes, he went to work flying prototype aircraft.
The terse bravado of test pilots has been broadly celebrated in The Right Stuff, exaggerated more in the movie than in the book but stylized in either case. By the time Alan Bean arrived, however, test pilots faced less dramatic challenges than their predecessors had. By then they were not testing raw experimental aircraft but suggesting refinements and making incremental advances in jet design. They sought more-sophisticated data, and they flew with more finesse and insight. Their lifestyle, too, lacked the drama and élan of The Right Stuff, seeming in contrast more disciplined and solitary.
It was during his years as a test pilot that Bean first took up watercolors. Two nights a week he drove thirty miles to St. Mary’s College for art classes. Whenever he could get away, he would paint aviation subjects, still lifes, and landscapes, trying to capture what he saw. Painting was for him a totally new way of concentrating, entirely different from the kind of focus required to fly high-speed jets.
One of the instructors at Patuxent at the time was Pete Conrad, a legendary seat-of-the-pants flyer. When Conrad made the second draft of astronauts in 1962, the other daring young Navy pilots felt challenged to follow him. A year later—the same year Bean’s daughter, Amy, was born—Bean was picked as one of fifteen would-be astronauts who went immediately into training for the Gemini and subsequent Apollo moon-landing flights.
Five intensive years of astronaut training and some Navy luck eventually got Bean a crew position on Apollo 12, along with Conrad and another Navy man, Dick Gordon; Conrad and Gordon had already flown three days in earth orbit together on Gemini IX. So Apollo 12 would have an all-Navy crew, three very short, very cool hotshots with dockside swaggers and a taste for shipboard humor. And one had something else as well—a discerning eye for beauty.
The Giant Eye
Alan Bean was a rookie astronaut when Apollo 12 blasted off on November 14, 1969. He was the first rookie to fill a lunar-landing slot, and it wasn’t until the T-minus-fifteen-minutes mark, when nearly everything on the run-through list had been checked off, that he was sure the day of departure had really arrived. With thirty seconds to go, a weather hold that lasted nearly ten minutes was called, and Bean wanted to scream.
All 24 men who left the earth would always remember clearly their first view of the whole planet. It was a showstopper that never failed. No matter what Houston or the flight plan expected or demanded, the three crewmen would crowd around the big main hatch window, pushing and elbowing for position and gazing out in awe.
“All of a sudden it’s in front of your window, just standing there,” Bean recalls, sounding a little awed even now. “It just hung there, surrounded by so much nothing. Whenever you see a picture of it, there’s always a frame, you know, something that keeps the earth in place. That makes it kind of okay, like it’s normal. But out in space you look at it and there’s nothing holding it up. It seems to defy all the normal things you see in your life.”
Dick Gordon, the command module pilot who was supposed to be driving at that point, grabbed the Hasselblad camera and snapped their first photos of the earth. Apollo 12 was to bring back without a doubt the finest pictures of translunar passage, both stills and film sequences. But nearly all of them were taken by Conrad and Gordon; Bean was too engaged in the view to take pictures.
“In the first five or six hours,” he remembers, “the earth gets smaller in a hurry. But after a while you can’t actually watch it shrink. And the moon doesn’t start to grow really big until you’re almost there. So that transition is very gradual, very subtle. You’d have to watch it pretty steady to be able to notice it happening.” He speaks with the authority of a man who did exactly that.
“And the way they balance out is kind of neat,” he says. “We were leaving about a quarter earth, waning quickly down to a crescent. And the moon was about three-quarters full and getting fuller. So it dawned on me while I was looking at it, hey, these things add up. If you put the two together, you would always have a full sunlit disk—they sort of fit together. Kind of a unity.” To Bean, the composition was one of symmetry, contrast, and celestial magnitude.
What Bean was able to see in outer space was startling not only in terms of perspective but for its clarity as well. Zero gravity prompts radical adaptations throughout the body. The skeletal system starts precipitating calcium within three days, trying to devolve bone back into cartilage; cartilage is all the support you need if you float in your environment. The heart shrinks as much as 40 per cent in twenty days, the entire cardiovascular system slowing down, since it no longer has to pump blood uphill. And the human eye, freed from the stresses and strains of gravity, takes a giant leap toward perfection. The earliest cosmonauts and astronauts all reported breathlessly on the fabulous vistas and incredible colors in space. Later, when longer flights allowed time for experimenting with color charts, it was proved that, yes, indeed, they could see some incredible colors up there. Astronauts who could distinguish only sixty to seventy shades of color on the ground could detect three hundred in orbit.
The visible spectrum also broadens beyond the narrow rainbow reflected in the earth’s atmosphere, into the infrared and the ultraviolet. Buzz Aldrin, returning from the moon on Apollo 11, was the first to report perceiving strange retinal tracers, quite distinct but indescribable. In further tests on later missions more than half the Apollo astronauts confirmed seeing them too. They turned out to be gamma rays—high-energy photons which are largely filtered out by the earth’s atmosphere and thus rarely seen. Another marvel was that out in space the eye’s resolving power becomes unbelievably sharp. American and Russian astronauts have accurately sighted objects against monochrome backgrounds, such as seas or glaciers, while still in orbit a hundred miles away.
The down side of this phenomenal acuity is an intensified myopia caused by the internal pressure on the cornea. Reading in space can become not just difficult but painful. Dick Gordon, whose job as command module pilot required him to study more charts and checklists than his partners did, had headaches and slept poorly for much of the flight.
Alan Bean had trouble sleeping too, but for different reasons. He felt fine. He was just nervous.
“I think you know before you go that it’s going to change your life,” he says. “Then, when you do go, you see the risk you’re taking, because when you’re out there in this little command module, you realize that if the glass breaks or the computers quit working or the electrical system quits working, you’re not going to get back. And you have time to contemplate this. You have time to think about it and run it through your mind a lot of different times.
“I remember thinking about it in lunar orbit before we went down to land. I was thinking, ‘You know, when I get back from here, if I get back from here, I’m going to really try and live my life like I want to.’ I came more to grips with the thought that life is short. And you want to make sure that you do what you have to do or like to do, in your short lifetime.”
When Bean was landing on the moon, he avoided looking out the window. “I found that it was most convenient not to look out,” he says, “because when I did, I was kind of amazed, and it was also slightly
frightening. But if I looked inside and concentrated on the displays and the computer, then it was more like a simulation, so I could perform in a more normal mode. I’d take a peek and be really, wow, fascinated. That was about all I could stand. Then I’d look back in and try to work on the job again.” After the crew had landed successfully and secured the craft, they began their explorations. “It seemed very unreal to me to be there,” he says, speaking softly. “Every now and then I’d grab hold of something solid and lean over backward—it wasn’t easy to lean back in those suits—I’d lean back and look for the earth. When I found it, I’d say to myself, that is the earth. This is the moon. I’m really here. I’m really here.’
“We landed twenty degrees west of the center, pretty close to the lunar equator, so I’d look seventy degrees above the horizon to the east, and there the earth sat. Perfectly still. And it’s easily the most spectacular thing you can see. It’s the biggest thing out there, about three times as big as the moon looks from earth, plus it’s just dazzling. It’s bright blue and white; sometimes you can see a little green. As far as you can see it’s the only thing with color in the whole universe. And it sort of glows, you know. It shines in a real subtle way. Through the telescope you can see the clouds moving, Watch it rotate. And it goes through phases, full earth, half earth, all that. And after a while I realized that the earth never moved. It always stayed in the same exact place! So if you’re standing on the moon, then from any one spot the earth is always fixed overhead. Always.
“It’s almost like this huge eye staring down at you. I remember thinking that if primitive men had somehow evolved on the moon, they would have looked at this thing and believed it was God. They’d have watched it and studied it and tried to interpret all the little changes they saw. You know, lots of clouds in the Southern Hemisphere this week—God’s got a spot in His eye, what’s that mean? No telling how many virgins they’d have sacrificed. I mean they would have really worshiped this thing. They couldn’t have helped it. You knew it was alive just looking at it.”
That image is a profound and exhilarating one, a perception of the soul as much as the eye, an artist’s vision. But it wasn’t one that Bean allowed himself to ponder for long. “I would always catch myself and say, ‘Quit daydreaming and do what you’re supposed to do,’ ” he says, “because I had the feeling that I was filling up my mind with data that weren’t useful. Whenever I’d tend to be the least bit afraid or look up at earth and think about how far, far away it was, then I’d immediately say, ‘Don’t do this now. You’ve got years to do this later. Get on with collecting rocks and making samples. You’ve got scientists back on earth waiting for you to set out these experiments. You’ve trained for years to set them out. Now’s the time to do it.’ I told myself there would always be time to reflect back on all this later on.”
Pete Conrad and Alan Bean spent a total of 7 hours and 45 minutes outside their lunar lander, walking around on the surface of the moon. They also spent an uncomfortable “night” trying to sleep in their space suits, curled up on the floor of the lunar module. Conrad’s suit was an inch too short. And every once in a while Bean got up to look out the window.
The icing on the cake of the mission, scheduled for the next day, was the recovery of pieces of an unmanned probe that had landed on the Ocean of Storms two years earlier. Conrad had made a spectacularly accurate touchdown about five hundred feet from the old probe. The crater in which the probe was hidden was to be the setting of a long-planned visual surprise. Conrad and Bean wanted to take a tourist-style photo of themselves posing proudly, arm in arm, in front of the famous New World artifact. The mystery would be, who could have taken the picture? They had packed an automatic timer for their lunar Hasselblad in one of the rock sample bags. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find it in all the dust. They wasted fifteen minutes looking for it, while Bean glibly talked over the radio about adjusting some straps on Conrad’s suit. Mission Control kept reminding them that they were behind schedule, so they were forced to give up the plan.
The flight of Apollo 12 was 100 per cent successful in the view of Mission Control: all objectives met, everything according to plan. The crew safely splashed down 10 days, 4 hours, and 36 minutes after blast-off, a mere 3.5 nautical miles from their prime recovery ship. They were welcomed home, appropriately feted, decorated by the president. Apollo 12 was only the second lunar-landing flight, but already the routine was becoming obvious. Only the government could send someone to the moon and back and make it boring.
The crew of Apollo 12 was the last to be recycled onto future missions. Dick Gordon was named commander of Apollo 18; he picked his crew and spent three years training them before Congress canceled the mission. Heartbroken and embittered, Gordon abruptly left NASA to become the general manager of the New Orleans Saints. In 1973 Pete Conrad commanded the first Skylab flight, which orbited the earth for a record 28 days. Later the same year, that record was broken by the second Skylab mission, commanded by Alan Bean, which spent nearly 60 days in space. Bean had now spent more time in space than any other man.
The Apollo program was a technical accomplishment of mythic scope—mankind’s first exploration of another world. Nonetheless, it eventually lost the public’s interest and sponsorship and came to a desultory, ambiguous close. The last Apollo spacecraft, its original mission canceled, was belatedly launched in 1975 for political reasons; it linked in orbit with a Soviet Soyuz capsule as the symbolic apex of Richard Nixon’s detente policy. Alan Bean was the backup commander for that final mission.
Bean stayed around NASA longer than most of the Apollo men, who did not all land on their feet. One by one they retired to civilian life, not always sure what that meant. Their transition was marked by the standard mid-life crises: nervous breakdowns, family breakups, value shifts, and rebirths. Bean experienced a major life change too; in 1976 he and his wife divorced.
Twenty-one of the 24 lunar explorers had retired by 1980, but Alan Bean was still an astronaut. He was chief of astronaut operations at the Manned Spacecraft Center, training the men and women who would fly the shuttle. At 48 he had little chance of flying again himself; yet he somehow remained enthusiastic and dedicated, an astronaut with a purpose.
Painter of the Lunar Frontier
Shortly after the Sky lab flight, Bean began the painting that changed his life. He had continued to paint ever since test pilot school, mostly on weekends and vacations, experimenting with different styles and media. His subjects were still lifes and landscapes, the usual repertoire of a hobbyist. His forte was beach scenes, improved editions of his first landscapes. They were creditable but ordinary, and he refused to show them to anyone except his hobbyist peers, who were mostly housewives.
One of those women, a Clear Lake neighbor named Nan Leim, suggested to Bean that he try to paint a subject that was his alone: men on the moon. The very idea made him nervous. A space painting was too real for him. But Leim goaded him until, as a favor to her, he tried one—a small one, barely a foot square. It was a moonscape with an astronaut and a large boulder in the foreground. Beyond the horizon was the black vastness of deep space. Bean was unhappy with the painting; nothing about it felt right. He worked on it for months; he couldn’t get it out of his head, couldn’t leave it alone.
“I finally realized that this was for me,” he recalls. “I mean, I didn’t know anything about flowers, which is what I’d been trying to paint. But I knew everything there was to know about space suits. NASA had had the best people in the world teaching me about that for the last fifteen years. And I knew what the moon looked like.”
He began driving into Houston at night, after his day at the space center, to take classes at the Glassell School of Art. Studying technique and looking for pointers, he took lessons from half a dozen painters, who mostly made him feel discouraged, because they couldn’t help him develop his own style. “They were good painters,” Bean says, “but basically all they taught you was how to paint like they did. I didn’t need that anymore.”
He was trying to paint the moon, that desolate immensity that only he, of all humanity’s painters, had seen. It made him a painter with a vision, an inspired man. In 1981 he surrendered to the compulsion and retired from NASA to paint his heart out. He destroyed almost every painting he had done up to then. And he finally found a mentor who really taught him something.
Jim Robinson is a wildlife painter who can make a goshawk seem to ruffle its feathers on canvas. A mostly nonverbal man, he taught Bean both by example and by critiquing Bean’s work. Bean learned two important lessons from Robinson. The first was to develop an acute attention to detail, a pure devotion to each blade of grass. The second lesson was to paint from photographs and models. Reality could be abstracted or represented, even misrepresented, but never painted accurately from memory. Artists of every representational school had learned the importance of painting from life; the old masters had sketched from models directly onto canvas—or had their assistants do it—and contemporary photorealists traced from slides projected right onto their canvases. The art, Bean realized, came from the artist, not his methodology.
When Bean went back to the Apollo archives, he realized what a negligent photographer he’d been. Of the twelve men who had stood on the moon, he had taken the fewest and the least interesting pictures. His were assigned shots of core tubes and science gadgets, a few de rigueur poses of Conrad planting the flag.
The dozen men who took lunar photographs will all tell you that their pictures are dull in comparison with the moon’s splendors. What appears on film as bleached-out barrenness looked, to the living eye, like a radiant field of mauve-gray, yellow-gray, more shades of gray than Rothko would have believed, all dancing too fast to be captured on film. Seen in the moon’s pure light, the primeval rocks had the icy luster of crystal set against shadows infinitely black.
To make up the difference between the photos and the reality was Bean’s challenge. He examined photos from the different sites of the six landing missions, hoping to portray the moon as broadly as possible. There were astronauts visible in every shot he chose; capturing men on the moon was his whole point. Usually he phoned the men in the pictures to ask them questions: Did they recall particular colors? How deep was the dust? Were they tired? “I really wish we had had more time to reflect,” he says wistfully. “It all goes by so fast. You’ve got so much to do to occupy your mind that you must forget tons of what’s happening. It never occurred to me to say, ‘Hey, someday I’m going to want to remember what this looked like.’ I wish it had.”
He went back to NASA to study his old space helmet and gloves, some straps and patches, a rock scoop, a core tube, a survey rod, a meal packet, bits of insulation and shielding, and other objects that he wanted to include in his pictures. He also brought home a few mementos and made models of astronauts, lunar excursion modules, and command modules. His small retirement apartment in Houston quickly filled up with the stuff.
Bean’s apartment—which he shares with his second wife, Leslie, whom he married in 1982—is the lair of a fanatic. Lunar paintings cover the walls, and space photographs and paraphernalia are everywhere. It was, in fact, the inspiration for the astronaut’s home in the movie Terms of Endearment, in which Jack Nicholson’s character seduces his honeys amid astro-regalia. Polly Platt, the film’s production designer, had gone searching for a typical retired astronaut’s home and found Bean’s. She thought the place looked fabulous.
“You know, I could look at this stuff for hours,” Bean admits. “Sounds crazy, but I can. I do. Most people, I guess, even most of the other astronauts, would think it’s too much. To me the moon was a beautiful place. It is a beautiful place. But maybe another painter couldn’t stand it. Monet, for instance, he wouldn’t see any of that green you always associate with him. It probably wouldn’t appeal to him. And Van Gogh, there’s none of that great blue he liked so much or that famous yellow. It just wasn’t there.”
It is natural that someone raised in Texas would best appreciate lunar beauty. Bean’s heroes nowadays are Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, the painters who captured the West before it was won. They too had included men in all their paintings—indeed, men in action were always the focus—but it is the frontier setting of the paintings that makes them valuable today. Remington and Russell too were considered little more than novelty acts during their lifetimes. Yet their work has outlived that rap by about ninety years.
The parallel between Bean’s paintings of another new frontier and those of Remington and Russell must seem obvious in Fort Worth, the city where Alan Bean came of age and the home of the Amon Carter Museum’s outstanding Western art collection. Bean’s first public show was held in Fort Worth in 1982 as a benefit sale for the city opera company, of all things. Fifteen paintings sold, at an average of $6000 apiece.
Still, Bean’s limited subject matter makes it easy for critics to dismiss him as little more than an amusing oddity: the painting astronaut. Bean is aware of that view, sensitive to it, and insecure because of it. Here is a man who has flown 27 types of military aircraft, often to their limits and under death-defying conditions. Yet he talks about his paintings with a quaver in his soft, flat voice. He shows them almost reluctantly, wringing his hands and looking at the floor, the nervous neophyte worried about acceptance in the art community.
His first real public exposure came in the July 1984 issue of Omni magazine, the classy and popular forum for high-tech culture. It carried six glossy pages of Bean’s paintings, which didn’t reproduce all that successfully but were well received nevertheless and prompted dozens of inquiries. In July of this year he had his first gallery show, a small preview at Houston’s Meredith Long and Company, a gallery that represents some of Texas’ highest-dollar artists. Although the eight paintings hung were not for sale, prints of his works sold briskly for $175. A major one-man show of Bean’s works will open at the gallery on November 20, one day after the fifteenth anniversary of his first step on the moon.
Bean works in acrylics because he considers that medium appropriate to his high-tech subject matter. Slowly he builds up ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty layers of color—darks at the bottom, grays in the middle, touches of mauve or yellow or green on the surface.
He works five or six long days a week, painting with the same determination he brought to being an astronaut. He rarely goes out, never socializes, and doesn’t take many vacations. “I find it very rewarding,” he says, “maybe not in the same way that being an astronaut was rewarding, or being a good pilot, but the same feeling.
“I think we all live our lives based partly on what we want to do and partly on what we have to do to present the image we want, or to influence the people we want—you know, what other people might think of us. But after you’ve been to the moon, when you get back you say, ‘I’m not going to worry about that anymore. I’m going to do those things that maybe, because of some other pressures, I didn’t do before.’ ”
The Unfinished Painting
One thing the Apollo pioneers still have in common is that they all live by the clock. Many wear enormous wristwatches, high-altitude chronometers that gauge time a dozen different ways with awful precision. They rely on them. They share a fierce ability to concentrate on the present moment—a survival skill if you fly strange airplanes under desperate circumstances. Perhaps that discipline helps them in the struggle they all face today: how to integrate their lunar experience into their present earthbound lives. They can’t leave that experience behind, but how is it relevant?
“I think the common denominator for what everybody’s done since is that they’ve all become more like they already were,” Bean says. “Having known most of them pretty well, I’m not really surprised by what they’re doing now. The fellows who got religion, for instance, they were religious people before they went. Maybe it wasn’t the center of their lives, but their religion was important to them. The only difference now is that they’re committed to it, pretty much full-time, I guess. It has become the center of their lives. Nobody’s faking it.”
By the time the show opens at Meredith Long, Bean hopes to have completed seventeen new paintings of men on the moon. Only one painting isn’t for sale, although it hung in both the Fort Worth and Houston shows. It’s a very private painting titled Tiptoeing on the Ocean of Storms, and it’s essentially a self-portrait.
Bean remembers precisely when Pete Conrad took his picture. “It was during our second EVA [extravehicular activity], before we went over to look at the probe. By that time we were pretty used to one-sixth g, which is lunar gravity. You can’t really simulate it. We’d trained in swimming pools, wearing harnesses, all kinds of weird things, but none of it came close to the real thing. Bouncing around on the moon was easy; it was great. You felt so light. The sun, the PLSS [portable life support system], none of that mattered. You could just skip along like a ballerina.
“It felt good to get outside again. The first time out we were pretty uptight, I guess, trying to be super-careful. We didn’t go more than a hundred meters from the LEM [the lunar excursion module]. All we did was set up the flag, put out experiments, grab some rocks, and get back in. We hardly had a chance to look around. The second EVA—that’s when we went exploring.”
They had been outside for an hour and traveled a thousand feet from the LEM, nearly to Bench Crater. The time was 133 hours, 10 minutes into the mission, according to the air-to-ground radio transmissions.
Conrad: You know what I feel like, Al?
Conrad: You ever see those pictures of giraffes running in slow motion? That’s exactly what I feel like.
Mission Control: Say, would you giraffes give us some comment on your penetration as you move across there?
Bean: The toes sink in a bit, Houston, as you push off. You land flat-footed so your heels don’t sink in, but as you push off with your toes, they sink in about three inches. Every time you land, it sends little particles spraying out everywhere for two or three feet.
The faceless, sun-visored, space-suited figure in Bean’s painting has a bouyancy that isn’t even suggested in the photograph. In the photo Bean looks dramatically out of place, downright surreal. The figure in the painting, on the other hand, seems much more natural, more at home. Instead of contrasting with the surroundings, he belongs there. Bean has painted himself into the picture, his lunar spirit, and it shows.
Conrad: Okay, Houston, I’m coming up on Bench Crater now. This looks like a very interesting crater. It’s different. Oh, and I see some really different rocks. That looks like bedrock. Gee, what a crater. Oh, boy! Hey, Al, look at . . .
Mission Control: Sounds interesting, Al, Pete. Sounds as though you’re getting down to bedrock. Is that affirm?
Conrad: Yeah, got to be bedrock.
Bean: Take some pictures. Let me go over to the other side a little bit here. Get you a good pan.
Conrad: Beautiful view. What a fantastic sight. Al, look in the bottom of that crater.
Bean: Hey, look over there.
The moon Bean paints is far more inviting than the wasteland depicted in NASA photograph AS 12/49-7213, taken by Conrad. Though the high-speed black and white film used was just the thing for close-ups of gray rocks, in a wide-angle moonscape like this, it exaggerated the starkness, the stillness, the lifelessness. Having a human figure frozen midprance in the foreground only makes it look even more unreal. If you look at the photograph for long and try to put yourself in it, pretty soon it makes you uncomfortable.
But the painting never does. Quite the contrary. At the Meredith Long preview, attended exclusively by hardcore gallery-goers, it was the painting around which everyone congregated, though it was farthest from the bar. People slowed up going past it, then stopped and studied it. It passed the final test of any art—it held an audience, an audience of skeptics.
Now Tiptoeing on the Ocean of Storms hangs at eye level in the living room of Bean’s apartment, just to the right of his easel—where he spends most of his time. In a sense it’s his window back to the moon, back into the experience; it’s what “San Antonio Rose” is for Pete Conrad.
Mission Control: Pete, we show you’re one-plus-fourteen into this EVA, and we’d like you to move on from this crater at about one-plus-twenty-seven. . . .
Bean: See those bright shiny rocks there, Pete?
Conrad: Yep, yep, yep, yep. How about those right there? Right there. See them shine?
Bean: Okay, got a picture of them.
Mission Control: Pete and Al, we show you’re about twelve hundred feet from the LEM.
Conrad: Come on, Al. We’re wasting time.
Tiptoeing on the Ocean of Storms must have thirty layers of acrylic in places, by now. Bean can’t resist the impulse to touch it up a bit. The impulse doesn’t come as often anymore, maybe once or twice a month, but you never know. It still isn’t finished. Perhaps it never will be.
Like the moonscape it depicts, the painting doesn’t photograph true either. You have to be there.