Between 1968 and 1972, nine American spacecraft voyaged around the moon. Twelve of those men on board unearthly shaped spacecraft, stepped foot onto the surface of another world, the only beings from our planet to do so. Apollo 12 blasted off from Kennedy Space Centre and on November 19th 1969, the Lunar Module Intrepid, separated from the Command Module Yankee Clipper. In a controlled descent down to the lunar surface, two astronauts landed with pinpoint accuracy near the Surveyor 3 lander in an area called the Ocean of Storms and walked on the moon. One of those men was Captain Alan Bean, the 4th man to walk on the moon and I met him today.
The chance to meet the Apollo 12 Lunar Module pilot, 4th man to walk on the moon, the Skylab 3 Commander and painter was fantastically organised by the team at www.space-lectures.com. People seem to be amazed he’s in Pontefract. Usually followed by some muttering about how they think it was faked and some massive conspiracy, oblivious to the fact that governments can’t even keep budgets secret. Idiots. Camera and video on standby.
Starting with a photo shoot, I walked in beaming like an idiot to be warmly greeted by this gentleman with a Texas drawl wearing his gold astronauts pin. “Hey, how are you?” he asks shaking my hand, grabbing me close and patting me on the shoulder. “Hi, my name’s Nick, thank you for coming today” I reply, “No, no thank youuuu for coming along today.” Very warm, pleasant and welcoming, I can’t remember the other bits we said, I was too busy grinning. Probably thought I was a raving lunatic but at least he didn’t launch himself out the room at escape velocity.
Then on to the public lecture to a packed theatre room of 450 people all patiently sitting in anticipation. The bloke next to me had travelled up from Brighton. I’m humming along to “giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon” with a poor Sting impression. If you couldn’t guess it, they were playing songs with a space related theme in the preview. I’m sat here in pure space geek heaven and I’ll do my best to retell his lecture.
After a 5 minute introductory video, Captain Alan LaVern Bean walks in to rapturous applause. He starts by telling us a little bit about himself, he lives with Houston Texas with his wife Lesley and their 2 dogs, ET and Moonbeam, has a son and a daughter who are all grown up and has 8 grandchildren, “this world is filling up!”
He flew Apollo, he flew Skylab and was back-up for a Russian mission. Was training to be a Shuttle commander and there were a lot of people in training. He took up painting when he was a test pilot and never thought he’d be able to do it as a profession. Half his astronaut friends thought it was a good idea, half thought it was a mid-life crisis. “What I hope to do today is tell you a few stories about the training I had to go to the Moon and tell you a few stories and show you some of my paintings about that experience on the Moon.”
The lecture is in full swing now, Alan Bean is explaining that if people can work together, they can do things like go to the moon. Bean started life as an astronaut at Johnson Space Centre and one of his jobs was running around in a spacesuit to find out how much energy was used for the moon’s 1/6th gravity. Important to calculate how much water needed in the backpack, the right amount of coolant and calculate the sun angle to know how much heat from the sun to keep the spacesuit cool. Getting to know the equipment enough so it becomes familiar. Then on to more training for the moon. Not quite “put up the flag, talk to the president, jump around and pick up a few rocks” as they’d imagined.
No, you’re going to have to learn about rocks. “Wait a minute, that sounds like what geologists do, we’re airline pilots.” Then its off to places that scientists thought they looked like the moon, volcanic fields in Hawaii. “If you took that surface and dug some craters in there and got some dust out of your pencil sharpener, a million pencil sharpeners, get that graphite out there, spread it over the top a foot or two deep, and you’d have the Moon.” They thought they’d find rocks 4.6 billion years old and craters 2 billion years old. What they actually found on the moon was that everything 3.5 billion years or older. Still, it wasn’t all work, General Motors decided to give them a new car each year. Wasn’t going to turn that one down.
What NASA didn’t know was how hard it would be. Neil Armstrong thought he had a 90% chance of getting there and back alive, but thought he only had a 50% chance of landing on the moon. “I remember when I was there in mission control, looking up at Neil and Buzz, Neil was my office mate, he was in the same office, we both had the same secretary, so we talked a lot. All of a sudden he shows up on the Moon! It was as amazing to us as it was to everybody else.” Alan then shows a painting he did of Neil to commemorate the occasion with an anecdote about the difference between Neil and Buzz, but explains that he got the watch wrong on the painting and ended up redoing it 3 times.
When the first men went to the Sea of Tranquillity, they landed within a 4 mile radius of their aim point. For Apollo 12, the destination changed to the Ocean of Storms where Surveyor landed 33 months earlier. The pinpoint landing was achieved by using a new method of getting data from 2 sites and using Doppler. This was tried in the simulators 3-4 weeks before the flight. “Up on the arm into the Saturn rocket, it was like something that was alive, an animal, it wasn’t at all like a machine. It was weird, but powerful.”
“We’d been training in simulators all along, I was looking out one side and Pete (Conrad) the other. There were so many more craters than I’d ever seen in one place, I thought there was no place to land. It scared me so much I could feel my heart rate go up, I was feeling frightened and couldn’t do my job if I was scared, so I just looked at my instruments, did something on the computer, said something to Pete, calmed myself down. Looked out again and wasn’t quite so scared. Adapted on the way down, this was scary to me but it seemed that way to me, we’re all different. We were supposed to land on the near edge of the crater with Surveyor in it, so he took us over as Neil had done and we went to the far right edge.
Alan Bean then explains how he took his first steps and took a while to get his balance. It’s a bit like being on ice and you can’t get good traction. The first thing he did was to toss his astronauts pin he’d been wearing since 1964 into the crater. Now he’s been into space, he gets a gold pin to wear. “When I look at the Moon at night, I get to the equator, look about 30 degrees and I think about that crater, I know where it is, and think about that little pin, which is going to be up there for millions of years, just as shiny as it was that day.” Now he’s got us all laughing when he says they wanted to pull a joke on the scientists by putting a stone arrowhead in the soil and inadvertently filming it.
Alan Bean is talking about teamwork, changing your attitude, getting along with people and how he looked at other people he thought were effective like Jim McDivitt. NASA was a team of 400,000 people, instead of getting frustrated at people, get to know them, find a way to care and admire your team mates. You can have a good life and provide leadership this way. There’s also a tremendous pressure to fit in, especially at school, follow your heart. Alan Bean is very proud of his achievements on Skylab achieving 120% of their goals which is more than any other NASA mission.
He’s also full of praise for Pete Conrad, the best astronaut he ever met. Pete Conrad allowed Alan Bean to fly the LM on the dark side of the moon. Of all the other commanders, not a single one of them let their Lunar Module Pilot fly. On splashdown, looking out at the sea, Captain Bean was surprised at the movement of the sea. On the moon, nothing moves except you. He’s also never complained about the weather since getting back, he’s just glad we have weather.
All too quickly, but running well over time, Alan Bean leaves us with 3 things, “light to thy path, wind to thy sails, dreams to thy heart.” A standing applause, he’s funny, self depreciating and he’s got the audience hooked. He’s got time for another little joke while he’s still wearing his microphone off stage. There he is autographing my photo on the left with his words of wisdom. Not just the musing of an astronaut, but those of a man who is thankful for the opportunities he’s had. Thank you very much Beano.
Links: Space Lectures