How the flight of Apollo 12 created a great artist

How the flight of Apollo 12 created a great artist

The flight of Apollo 12, the second expedition to the lunar surface, is not as well known as the first mission to the moon, Apollo 11, or Apollo 13, the moon mission that almost didn’t make it home. But it did create one of the great artists of the space age.  

Apollo 12 began inauspiciously. Lightning struck the spacecraft twice, once 36.5 seconds into the flight, and again 58 seconds after liftoff. Flight Controller John Aaron’s and Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean’s quick thinking enabled them to save the mission by flicking an obscure switch.

Apollo 12’s other major snafu occurred on the lunar surface when Alan Bean accidently exposed a color TV camera to the sun, destroying some of its electronics. Humans on Earth would not be able to witness men walking on the moon in real time until Apollo 14, over a year later.

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The rest of the Apollo 12 mission was an outstanding success. The lunar module achieved what NASA called at the time a “pinpoint landing,” which meant touching down within 100 yards of the intended spot. The space agency set some store by this capability, remembering that only the skill and steel nerves of Neil Armstrong prevented the Apollo 11 lunar module from landing in a boulder strewn field and possible disaster.

Fellow astronaut Pete Conrad and Bean gathered a lot of rock and soil samples. They set up equipment that would measure the moon’s seismicity, magnetic field and solar wind. They recovered parts of the Surveyor 3 robotic probe for later examination. The two astronauts took copious photographs, though Alan Bean, now no doubt feeling like a klutz, left several rolls of film on the lunar surface. Meanwhile, their crewmate Dick Gordon performed observations from the command module in lunar orbit.

Apollo 12 featured more instances of whimsey than the previous mission. Apollo 11 had already fulfilled President Kennedy’s vow to send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth “before this decade is out.” Pete Conrad, a relatively short man, captured the spirit well when he uttered his first words from the surface of the moon. “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”

Conrad and Bean would go on to each command a mission to Skylab. Then both men had the problem of deciding what to do with the rest of their lives. Conrad would take a series of corporate jobs. He was heavily involved in the development and testing of a prototype of a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle called the Delta Clipper.

Alan Bean would take a different path. For years he would wrestle with the idea of how to convey what it was like to walk on the moon. Mere words seemed to be inadequate. Even the many hours of film of men bouncing around on the lunar surface did not quite, in his mind, communicate the meaning of the experience.

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In 1981, Bean retired from NASA and chose a medium of communication as old as the painted scenes on the walls of Neanderthal caves. Navy pilot and astronaut Bean took up a brush and decided to paint scenes from the first age of lunar exploration.

Stylistically, Bean’s paintings make one think that Claude Monet had been snatched from the gardens and lily ponds of his beloved Giverny to inhabit the body of an Apollo moonwalker. Bean would use color light, shadow and texture to try to make people who had never been to the moon experience what only 12 men in history have done. He used a moon boot and a geologist’s hammer to add touches to his work and then incorporated a little moon dust for good measure.

Most of Alan Bean’s works depict moments in time from the moon walks, Gene Cernan with the American flag or John Young exuberantly leaping from the lunar surface. But his greatest painting is of an Apollo moonwalker entitled, “That’s What it Felt Like to Walk on the Moon.” The background is indistinct, and the legs fade into nothingness as if the man in the moon suit was untethered to any ground. The viewer cannot see the man’s face behind the helmet. But that painting, more than any other, conveys what the artist felt 50 years ago, when for a brief time he explored another world.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.