“I’m Going to Paint the Moon for You” Godspeed, Alan Bean


“And what you didn’t see

I’ll let you see through me

I’m going to paint the moon for you”

Captain Alan Bean passed away today. He was a Navy test pilot, an astronaut who served as lunar module pilot of Apollo 12 and as commander of Skylab II, and a painter unlike any other.

He was a great man, and a man who was greater for not appreciating how great he was. I don’t know that I’ve met any who have accomplished more, nor any more driven to better themselves.

History will remember him as the fourth man on the moon, or, more commonly, will remember forgetting him as the fourth man on the moon. The band Hefner many years ago released a song title “Alan Bean,” which while generally a beautiful tribute, contains the line “Everyone will forget soon/ the fourth man on the moon.” In a Twitter war between Wendy’s and Hardee’s a couple of years ago, Wendy’s claimed nobody cared if you were first to do something – “Tell us the fourth person to walk on the moon without googling it.”

Remember Alan Bean.

Twelve human beings have walked on the moon. Someday there will be more; a someday that is both soon and not soon enough. I am proud to be part of a team working to put them there. 

Alan Bean is the embodiment of why I believe that is important.

Right now there are two rovers driving on Mars, among other robots surveilling the planet. They are our vanguard on the Red Planet; they are our proxy scientists, our proxy explorers. They do the things we need to be doing on Mars, and they do it well.

Soon, much sooner than there are humans, there will be new robots on the surface of the moon. They, too, will conduct science and exploration on our behalf on the rocky regolith of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Some believe they should suffice. Some believe that we should spare the cost and risk of sending humans to other worlds in light of the able accomplishments of our mechanical surrogates.

They are, with all respect, wrong. Part of the reason is that as capable as these robots are, a human being is more capable still, and, more importantly, better able to improvise, to respond in real-time to his or her surroundings.

For me, however, that argument is wrong because of Alan Bean.

I had the opportunity to meet Alan Bean. I saw him in person multiple times, but the moments that will stay with me always are the ones I spent with Alan and my Homesteading Space co-author Owen Garriott at Bean’s Houston home.

Alan Bean was an amazing man, and it was incredible to sit with him and hear him tell stories. We were there to talk Skylab, and his Skylab stories were captivating. And even though it’s not what we were there to discuss, the moon was mentioned more than once. 

It was an unforgettable experience to be there with him and Owen, two men who had shared decades before an experience unlike any other, to see them not as heroes in the spotlight, but as two friends who had known each other far longer than I’d been alive. I hope to have friends like that when I’m that age.

We sat in his kitchen, adjoining his studio, surrounded by in-progress paintings. His skill with a paintbrush was impressive in its own merit, but almost shocking in the context of who it was painting – it seemed somehow unlikely – and certainly unfair –  for a man of unparalleled left-brain accomplishment to  be a right-brain virtuoso as well.

Owen asked when he was finally going to paint Skylab. We tried to get him to time a Skylab painting for the release of the book. Every time we asked, it was always just over the horizon. It’s a painting I would have loved to have seen, and one we now never will.

Being a fan of history, his studio area for one reason made me debate whether I was annoyed. There, hanging from his walls, were presentations of patches he had flown to and worn on the moon. Or, more accurately, of portions of patches, gradually stripped apart thread by thread til only half-artifacts remained.

Bean went out of his way to help us. He shared his stories, he reviewed what we’d written to make sure it was accurate. In one of the conversations, he mentioned that he’d kept a diary while on Skylab, something not even Owen had known before. “Would you like to use it in your book?” … Yes. Yes, we would. As if any other answer to that were possible.

It was a fun challenge transcribing the diary; when I first saw it, I didn’t immediately recognize it was English writing. Bean seems to have a very distinctive autograph, but, the reality is, he doesn’t sign his name, he just writes it normally. It’s his normal writing that’s distinctive, to the point of appearing almost heiroglyphic to the untrained observer.

I’m proud we were able to do that; to share such an important historic document, to make it available to the public, to preserve it for future generations.

To make sure no one will forget soon the fourth man on the moon.

One of my most prized possessions is an early draft of Homesteading Space with Bean’s handwritten edits in it. A man who walked on the moon took the time to read something I’d helped write, and in his own hand marked it up to make it better. My answer to the icebreaker “if you’re house were on fire, what item would you save” is easy.

I’ll never meet the Curiosity rover. I’ll never eat cookies in Opportunity’s kitchen. I’ll never hear InSight’s stories of being on another world.

But, even if I could, they couldn’t tell me what it was like. They provide us with endless valuable data, but they can’t shared what it is to experience it, what it means to be the only ones on a distant orb.

Alan Bean did.

I was blessed to have that that personal experience, to have met the man, talked with him, spent time with him, eaten spaghetti with him, to get some slightest vicarious sense of what it was like, how it felt.

Twelve men walked on the moon. Eight have already left this Earth again. Four – Buzz Aldrin, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke and Jack Schmitt – remain. The dark day will come when none are left. The youngest of them were born in 1935. If it takes another decade to return to the moon, they would be 92. It’s possible this planet will never again be without moonwalkers. It’s possible it will. If so, when there is no one left who can tell what it was like to be there, the best we will have are those who heard and carry their stories; a somber burden.

Not everyone will get to meet a moonwalker. Not everyone will have that experience. Alan Bean knew that, and that knowledge drove so much of his life after his return to Earth.

He realized that he had in combination two things no other human being combined – the experience of what it was to walk on the moon, and the ability to capture it visually. And so he did.

For the rest of his life, he painted. He painted the moon, but in a way that was less driven by photographic truth than by emotional truth; he wanted to paint not what the moon looked like, but what the moon felt like.

To make that connection more visceral, he put something of the moon in his paintings. He took his moon boots and pressed them into the fresh paint, giving it texture. Those half-stripped-apart patches I mentioned? Taken apart thread by thread so that he could place those strands, with whatever slight particles of moon dust they contained, in his original paintings, embedding the actual moon in his paintings of it.

““And what you didn’t see

I’ll let you see through me”

He brought the moon home, and he spent his life sharing it.

Someday men and women will walk on the moon again. It’s not impossible it will be people I know before they leave, and it’s a goal to talk to them when they get back. But when they do, they’ll tour the world, and they’ll tell their stories. They’ll share their experiences.

And Alan Bean is why I believe that’s vital.

Godspeed, Commander.

More Rocket in the Rocket City


In the past week, without most locals being aware of it, more rocket arrived in the Rocket City.
 
The core of NASA’s Space Launch System will be the largest rocket stage in history. One of its fuel tanks alone, the liquid hydrogen tank, holds as much as maybe 20 average backyard swimming pools. The liquid oxygen tank is “smaller,” but that’s a very relative term. When they’re full, they get kind of heavy. In between them is an empty cylinder that’s sole job is to keep them from bashing into each other during launch, because that would be what the technical folks call “a bad day.” There’s over seven million pounds of pressure pushing up on several swimming pools worth of a substance that really likes to burn, and millions of pounds of pressure pushing down on more swimming pools of another substance that really really likes to make things burn. And there’s one empty cylinder, the intertank, taking the combined force to make sure that doesn’t happen.
 
It’s kind of important that cylinder work. That’s why, the other day, a test version of that cylinder arrived in Huntsville to undergo unimaginable stress (seriously, stop and try to imagine it in a way that provides any real understanding) to ensure that, when the day comes, the real thing will do its job.
 
The intertank test article joins both more test hardware and actual flight hardware of the world’s largest rocket here in Huntsville. Over the course of the year, it will be joined by even more test articles, including those giant fuel tanks, while being accompanied by less flight hardware – while it’s cool to have giant rocket parts in Huntsville, it’s even cooler to have them in Florida, and way cooler still when they leave there.
 

Godspeed, John Young


I was born about a week after the end of the Apollo era. John Young and Bob Crippen were the first US astronauts to fly in my lifetime, and by then I was old enough to be excited about it. To me, they were like real-life Captain Kirks. It was not until decades later that I realized he had walked also on the moon, but even then it impressed me less than flying that first space shuttle into the heavens.

I still have what may well be the first space writing I ever did, a science fiction story from over 35 years ago about John Young in the Year 1999. I’ve written more than a few words about him since, but he inspired me from the beginning.
 
He had a reputation for being … strong-willed. To the best of my recollection, I only saw him in person once, and my two memories of that occasion are him talking, as he did frequently, about how we needed to explore space because single-planet species don’t survive, and him cussing at my then-wife.
 
When I first began working on Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986, a fellow astronaut contacted Young about talking to me for the book. He politely declined; he was working on his own book, Forever Young, at the time, and understandably wanted to save his stories for that.
 
Nonetheless, through the words of others, he looms large over the book; you couldn’t write a history of the early shuttle without the presence of John Young being strongly felt. One of my favorite stories in the book is from my Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story co-author Owen Garriott; recounting Young landing the shuttle on their STS-9 mission, discovering that the auxiliary power unit was on fire, and calmly noting “I’ve never seen it do that before.”
 
It was amazing to me that he was still an active duty astronaut when I first began working as a contractor at Marshall Space Flight Center, a very real connection between “my NASA” and the earliest days of the agency.
 
Young was one of a kind. He’s left this world six times before, but leaves it a little less colorful this time.
 
Godspeed, commander.
 
 
 

At The Beginning…


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Three years ago today, Rebecca and I were at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the first launch of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. It was, to put it lightly, an incredible experience. I’d returned to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and joined NASA’s Space Launch System two years earlier that week, but I’d been following Orion for far longer than that, so it was overwhelming finally seeing it fly.

Sunday marked five years that I’ve been part of the SLS program, and they’ve been the most incredible of my career. I’m incredibly blessed to be here – I was talking to a friend, recently, about how, when I was in early high school, this is basically where I’d dreamed of being, that I’d abandoned that dream before college, but had somehow halfway-accidentally ended up where I’d wanted to be in the beginning. The irony is, if I’d stuck with my initial dream, there’s a good chance I would have ended up somewhere else.

All that to say, I’ve watched the SLS team pour themselves into this work, and we’re now seeing it pay off in a very real and very big way as the rocket takes shape. It is phenomenal to see the things they’ve already built, and to watch those massive pieces come together. But the real payoff – I was about to say the real payoff will be finally seeing in launch in two years, but, while that will be incredible, it’s not really true. The real payoff will be seeing what is accomplished when this rocket starts flying, and seeing a generation inspired as humanity reaches farther than ever before.

“The University is Respected, But Ole Miss Is Loved”


This was in my Facebook feed this morning:

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I’ve had the opportunity to go some amazing places and see some awesome things supporting NASA’s Space Launch System, but getting to take my rocket back “home” to Ole Miss will always be a favorite.

For the first six years after college, when I was still working in newspapers, it looked like I was on track to eventually accomplish the career dreams I had when I was a print journalism major there.

In my mind, it’s a far, far greater testimony to how well my Ole Miss journalism prepared me to see now how far it’s carried me from anywhere I’d ever dreamed.
It’s been a little while since I’ve been published in a newspaper or magazine, but I’m still proud of my The University of Mississippi – Ole Miss j-school education, and grateful to folks like Samir A. Husni, Joe Atkins, Robin Street and Judy Crump for the foundation they gave me.

Fred Haise and the Waning Record


Fred Haise holds the record for distance from Earth.

He’s famous today because of the movie “Apollo 13” that embedded “Houston, we have a problem” and “Failure is not an option” in the world’s conversation about space. Bill Paxton is probably more often recognized for being Fred Haise than Fred Haise is.

Less known is the fact that, because of that mission and its off-nominal trajectory, Haise, Jim Lovell and the late Jack Swigert went farther into space than any other human being had before or has since.

Fred Haise was at Marshall Space Flight Center today, to speak to the workforce.

It’s an amazing and surreal experience when visitors like this come; I’ve seen Mercury and Apollo astronauts speak in Morris Auditorium; I’ve seen Gene Kranz tell the story of Apollo 13 from the mission control perspective.

Their stories are stories that belong to the world; their history is world history. Anyone, anywhere could listen to them talk and be enthralled and engaged, could listen to them talk and have their stories resonate.

Their history is world history, but they were wearing that blue circle with the red vector and the white word NASA when it happened. Their stories belong to the world, but, at Marshall, their stories are our stories.

It’s awe-inspiring and surreal to hear those stories and be reminded of the unbroken connection between that history and the present and the future. The rocket Fred Haise rode was designed yards from where I work. The story didn’t end, it continues a torch that is passed from generation to generation.

Fred Haise has been farther into space than any human being ever has.

And that will continue to be true, for about five more years.

I have the honor and privilege of working with people who are heir to that history. I have the honor and privilege of working with people who are carrying it forward.

I work with people who, yards from where the Saturn V was designed, are designing a rocket that will build on its legacy, continuing humanity’s outward odyssey.

The first people to ride on that rocket, in just a few short years, will break Fred and Jim and Jack’s record. The first people to ride on that rocket, in just a few short years, will, truly, go where no one has gone before. And that new record, pushing back humanity’s frontier into the void, will not be the goal of this new endeavor. It will be the starting line.

As he left the moon for the final time, the late Gene Cernan said, “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.”

It was a rare pleasure to hear Fred Haise talk about his experiences, but even more exciting as NASA prepares to turn one of the greatest chapters of its history into a prologue for the future.

Peggy Whitson, Chocolate Candies and Mars


Peggy Whitson in the ISS cupola on her 638th day in space.

Peggy Whitson returned to Earth Sunday.

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Peggy. My first day at Marshall Space Flight Center, 15 years ago last month, Peggy Whitson was in space; the only American astronaut aboard the International Space Station when I began working at NASA.

That was on Expedition 5, the fifth crew of the space station. (This weekend marked the beginning of Expedition 53.) The space station was a whole lot younger then; long-duration spaceflight, at least for NASA, a whole lot newer.

After that mission, Peggy came to Marshall on a tour of the NASA centers to share her experiences with the workforce, along with the STS-113 space shuttle crew that had brought her home. The significance of long-duration missions was really driven home for me during that visit, in the most seemingly trivial of ways.

Among the shuttle crew was astronaut Paul Lockhart, who had the unusual distinction of having been part of both the crew that delivered Peggy to the space station and the crew that brought her home five months later. Normally, an astronaut wouldn’t fly two shuttle flights so close together, but the STS-113 crew ended up needing to call in a backup member, and Paul was tapped to fly.

He and Peggy were both rookies on STS-111, and he talked about how gawky they were in microgravity compared to the veteran astronauts. Peggy was allegedly close to utterly graceless as she floated in orbit for the first time.

When he went back to the station on his second flight, he was more experienced, and moving more easily through the spacecraft. When they got to the space station, Peggy was in another class altogether; not only more graceful than when they dropped her off, but more efficient than any of the astronauts, no matter how many times they’d flown.

This was driven home during the crew’s video of their mission, in a relatively minor way. The astronauts, as astronauts are wont to do, were eating some candy-coated chocolates of a totally non-brand-specific origin. I’d seen footage before of this, and it usually involved astronauts floating through a cloud of the candies, Pac-Manning them into their mouth as they floated, catching what they could. Peggy, however, did not. Peggy reached out into the cloud, and, with a fingertip, began pinging them into her mouth with impressive speed and complete accuracy. Orbital Pac-Man had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

I had the opportunity to experience weightlessness myself five years later, and was provided with some candy-coated chocolates of my own. I decided I was going to Peggy Whitson them. I was wrong. I tried. I failed. Now, granted, I was bad at microgravity in general, but my first effort, from a foot or two away, missed completely. I tried moving it closer. From mere inches, I finally made it to my mouth, the candy bouncing off my teeth before floating away. It was hard. It was hard, and in less than five months in space, Peggy could do it perfectly.

Peggy returned to Earth this weekend with more total time in space than any American astronaut. 665 days, almost 22 months. The better part of two years in space.

Pinging candy-coated chocolates into your mouth in microgravity is hard. But there are tasks that will be required of the first astronauts to sail between the planets, to visit other worlds, that will be far harder. It’s exciting that we are now in a time when astronauts like Peggy Whitson are gaining the experience, and the knowledge, we will need to make those things happen.

Welcome back, Peggy, and thank you.