“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.

Song Challenge Week 15 — A Song That Describes You

OK, I started this quite a while back and then dropped the ball, but I’m going to try picking up the 30 Day Song Challenge again as a weekly project.

Song Challenge Week 15 — A Song That Describes You

“Alan Bean,” Hefner

So of course I read this prompt and my ego points out that no one song can define me. And, you know, my ego is totally right about that one.

I could pick a handful of songs that seem very “me” to me, but one in particular stands out as being sort of integral to my personal mission.

Hefner’s “Alan Bean” resonates for a few reasons. First, I like the fact that it’s about Alan Bean, the moonwalker with whom I have the most personal connection, and an all-around neat guy.

The bit about not giving up is encouraging, and the part about being changed by someone else’s prayer strikes a personal chord also.

But the thing about the song that I feel most describes me:

“And what you didn’t see
I’ll let you see through me.
I’m going to paint the moon for you.”

I’ve never been to the moon. Or to Skylab.

And I can’t paint.

But I’ve been blessed, very blessed, to get to see those things in a way most people don’t. And if I can’t paint, I can still tell a story. And because of that, I feel an obligation to share those things I’ve seen, to tell stories to let people see them in a way they otherwise couldn’t. And not just the moon, but Mississippi tornado recovery and Civil War invasions and falling out of airplanes and more.

And that’s a two-fold mandate. I feel the need to share the things I see so other people can see them, and also to see as much as I can so I can share it.

At the end of the day, I want to have lived a good story.

NASA: Doing What No Else Can Do

The new social networking tool at work has a “Question of the Week” feature that invites users to share. This week’s question was “What is it about NASA that makes you proud to be a part of it?” Only a handful of people had answered when I did, and they started by talking about what they do, so I did, too. Here’s the answer I posted.

I work in education. I’m proud to, but I’m aware that I’m a very small cog in a very big machine.

My team got to be “mission” for STS-118. We were involved in a “real” payload, and when the crew visited Marshall after the mission, we were the ones invited to join them for lunch. But that was the exception. We have nothing to do with putting people into space, with exploring other worlds, with bringing crews home safely, with conducting science on the space frontier, or any of the other sexy things the agency does.

Our job is to help inspire the people who will do those things in the future.

I love my job. A lot. I’m proud to be a part of the agency. But, every once and a while, there comes a moment that reminds me just what this agency is that I’m a part of.

I hear a talk by Alan Bean. I watch a launch of the space shuttle. I talk with astronaut aboard the space station. And I’m reminded just what this agency is.

We do the things that no one else on the planet — or off, which in our case is a necessary distinction — can do. The only reason we can’t say that we do the impossible is because NASA takes those things that are impossible for anyone else and makes them possible.

Who else could have landed men on the moon? Who else could place two rovers, back to back, on the surface of Mars? Who else could deliver a crew of seven people to help construct the International Space Station? Who else could peer into the cosmos the way we have with the Hubble Space Telescope? Who else could inspire the people of America, and of the world, the way NASA has?

Who else? No one. NASA does the things no one else can do. These things must be done, and therefore we must do them.

And we do.

How could one not be proud to be part of an organization like that?

Paint The Moon For You

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I just had to share this video of Stephen Colbert’s interview with Alan Bean. Good stuff. Bean is just a cool, neat guy, and it really comes across in this video.

A handful of thoughts watching it:

He talks in the video about how he cuts up his patches to put some moon dust in each of his paintings, possibly the only way normal citizens can acquire even that tiny amount of lunar material today. I’ve seen those patches, framed on the wall of his studio area of his house, and it’s bizarre. These are history, selections from a very limited number of artifacts from one of the greatest achievements of human history, and they’re gradually being taken apart until they’re gone. It would be like if someone had an original copy of the Constitution hanging on his wall that he was slowly cutting up. I’m sympathetic and possibly supportive of what Bean’s doing and why; I’m not saying he’s wrong to do it. I’m just saying, to actually see it, it’s viscerally bizarre.

Bean talks about the fact that the original Apollo astronauts won’t be around much longer, and it just drives home how incredibly fortunate I am to have met him and some of the others, and the responsibility that comes with that; the day will come when it won’t be possible to meet the moonwalkers first hand, the closest you’ll be able to come is talking to people who did, and reading their preserved histories. I’m incredibly honored and blessed to have been a part of both, and hope to be worthy of that legacy.

Alan Bean is cool. Have I mentioned that? He’s just a neat guy.

In introducing Bean, Colbert refers to him as the fourth man to walk on the moon, and even though the phrasing was different, something about the cadence reminded me of Hefner’s song Alan Bean, and how the interview belies the opening lines: “Everyone will forget soon / the fourth man on the moon.”

The song isn’t making that argument, it’s imagining what Bean would have been thinking. It’s a beautiful song, and one that I connect with several parts of:

Ever felt like giving up?
I’ve felt like giving up.
But not since 1969.

I found a greater truth,
At a godly altitude,
Won’t waste another day of my life.

As we tumbled down to earth,
We felt the capsule turn,
We saw the blue skies burn.

As we splashed down in the sea,
You were praying on your knees,
It bought a change in me.

Everyone will forget soon,
The fourth man on the moon,
But I’ve got it in my mind.

I’d like to paint your eyes,
But I’ve got to paint the sky.
Going to be a painter all my life.
As we tumbled down to earth,
We felt the capsule turn,
We saw the blue skies burn.

As we splashed down in the sea,
You were praying on your knees,
It bought a change in me.

And what you didn’t see,
I’ll let you see through me.
I’m going to paint the moon for you.

Ever felt like giving up?
‘We’ve felt like giving up’
Ever felt like giving up?
‘All the time.’

(When did “Stories …” become a music blog? That’s all I’m writing about now, apparently. This post doesn’t even have anything to do with music, but half of it’s lyrics. Hrm.)