Captain Alan Bean was the fourth of only 12 men ever to walk on the Moon. I was lucky enough to hear him share some of his stories, and speak about the way he is trying to capture his experience through the medium of painting. Here are some of the highlights of the talk he gave in Pontefract on 12th October 2013.
Alan Bean went to night school to study art. He was training to be a space shuttle commander at the time, but he decided to give that up, saying that he’d had his chance. He’d gone to the Moon and, in his words, “there were others that could command the shuttle just as well as I could”. Some people thought he was having a mid-life crisis at that point, others thought that art was not a worthy subject, but he continued. “We’re all different, we should preserve that” he says. He speaks passionately about his work, of capturing memories of the Moon in a way no-one else can. I think it the stories about his art deserve a post of its own. Coming soon!
Getting to the Moon was a job done by 400,000 people, but they were not 400,000 geniuses he says, just 400,000 people that worked together to make it happen. “Every flight to the Moon had to start somewhere; every impossible dream has to start somewhere”.
Test pilots were the ones that had flown things that were as close to being a spaceship as possible. Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Deke Slayton, they all came from that test pilot background before they were astronauts. “I had never done anything impossible before” says Bean, “I had never even tried to do anything impossible before”. When he started, he was worried that everyone was going to be a genius and he’d have a lot to learn from them all. After meeting someone and realising that they were no smarter than he was, he got more worried. If they were like him, and he knew he couldn’t do it, how could going to the Moon be possible?
“I never heard anyone saying we couldn’t do it” says Bean, there was more “wow, that was a mistake we made, we shouldn’t do that again”.
All humans make mistakes he says, “we’re trapped by who we are”, they just had to be willing to pay the price.
Bean said that he knew from calculus at school that he wouldn’t know how to point a rocket at the Moon. Others could, but they can’t fly a spaceship. They all had to work together to make this happen.
Things didn’t always go smoothly. Bean tells us the story of his suit-testing. In order to check various things they hoisted him up in the air whilst wearing it to see how he could move in it. It was padded, but not enough, and while the suit was held in the air, Bean himself inside it was not. “Owch.” They realised their mistake and tried putting more padding in “it wasn’t enough”. Then they tried filling the suit with water so that he could float inside but “you can’t float standing up”. After various attempts they tried training in water (much like the astronauts do now to train for spacewalks) so that when he got to the Moon, he knew what to do.
Bean was asked by his superiors what he thought he was going to do on the Moon. “Put the flag in, collect some rocks, talk to the President, put the TV camera on and see how high we can jump” replied Bean. “That’s what we thought you thought” they said before reminding him that they had to be explorers when they were up there.
The astronauts had to learn about different rocks so that they knew what to look for on the Moon.
“But that’s geology” he grumbled, “maybe you shoulda got geologists and taught them to fly!” After a few days complaining they settled into it. “I’ve probably got a doctorate in geology” says Bean, “I didn’t even want it, but I quite like it now.” They trained in places like Hawaii, where if you covered the ground with two feet of graphite like you get as pencil sharpener dust, it would have been like the Moon.
They thought that they would find craters two billion years old, but they didn’t find that. Instead they found everything was around 3.5 billion years old – as though nothing had really happened to the Moon since then.
“We’d love to find a great big relic, a whole stack of diamonds – something – not just rocks” says Bean. He admits that they considered taking an arrow head up with them as a practical joke, placing it on the Moon in such a way that mission control would see it. He’s glad they didn’t do it though, there are enough people with conspiracy theories and as he says “I love scientists, but they wouldn’t have been amused”. “They probably wouldn’t have let us back in!”
We thought we would lose more crews trying to get to the Moon than we did, says Bean. We have three spare command modules and rockets. “We knew this impossible dream wouldn’t be easy.” Neil Armstrong thought his crew had a 90% chance of getting to the Moon and back, but only a 50% chance of actually landing on it, recalls Bean. Armstrong and Bean shared at secretary at work, and Bean remembers how strange it was that they’d been in the office together “then all of a sudden he turns up on the Moon”.
Neil Armstrong confided to Bean that putting the American flag up was one of the scariest moments of the mission. “Why?” asked Bean, apparently Armstrong couldn’t get it deep enough into the Moon and was really worried it might fall over into the dust. He found the centre of gravity for it and carefully balanced it, reportedly saying “as soon as we got it balanced we got away as soon as possible, and we didn’t go near it again”.
Originally Bean thought that they would be going to the Sea of Tranquillity like Apollo 11 before them, but they were told that they were going to the Ocean of Storms instead. NASA wanted to prove that they could land near something – Surveyor – but as Bean pointed out with reference to Apollo 11 “we just proved we can’t!”.
They were given an extra two months to find a way to land with pin-point accuracy. The crew and mission control worked on the problem, but the ideas that were first suggested just weren’t working in the simulations. Then someone at the back of a meeting had an idea. They had to find a way to take data from two tracking stations so that they could work out exactly where they were and how fast they were going. That way they could re-programme the computers for landing.
This gave them two problems he says: firstly, there was no way to take information from two places, and secondly “you don’t want to go into the computer when the engine’s burning”. There were no better ideas so as the mission data crept up they were told “you figure out a way to get your data into the computer without screwing up so you hit the Moon”. “That’s the NASA way” quips Bean.
“Our rocket” says Bean, referring to the enormous Saturn V that transported him to the Moon, “it was so beautiful”. He speaks of the cryogenic fuel causing ice to build up on the rocket, making it shine. He remembers looking down with pieces of ice falling off “it looked like a breathing animal of some sort – it wasn’t inanimate”. When they launched and it was shaking he wondered if they could keep the rocket together.
“It didn’t look like we were leaving” he says, explaining that it felt like the Earth was leaving them. “It’s leaving us” he thought, and in 10 days time “that thing (Earth) was going to be who knows where”. It was mission control that would have to make the calculations to get them back safely.
He tells us what was going through his head as they were nearing the Moon, “I’m feeling frightened, I can’t do my job when I’m feeling frightened”. He looked back into the module and at the control panels, it looked just like the sim, he felt better. Then he looked back out of the window and back in again, he had to adapt to it.
Just as I’m thinking that this admission of fear is unusual from an astronaut, he comments “I’ve never heard any other astronaut say that”.
Bean speaks warmly of his commander saying “Pete Conrad is the best astronaut I ever met”.
Whilst they were up and orbiting the Moon it was Conrad’s job to run the primary computer and Bean was looking after the back-up systems in case they should lose contact with Earth. Here’s the story as Bean tells it (perhaps worth checking out the Apollo 12 transcripts for exact details on the conversation):
Conrad: “It looks like you’re working hard back there”
Conrad: “But don’t miss the flight. Why don’t you put it down and look out?
As Bean explains to us “He’s my commander, so I did. I looked out of the window”, then came the ultimate question from Conrad. “Al, would you like to fly this thing?”. Conrad explained they could call up a delta V programme and zero things out again to be back on course. Bean knew that mission control was not going to like this, but Conrad had it covered. “Don’t worry, we’re on the dark side of the Moon, they’ll never know”.
You can’t fault the logic and it’s evident Bean still holds this moment dear, “Wow – for someone to think of that – for me…” he says with admiration and humility.
No other commander let their lunar module pilot do that, even when Conrad had told them about the idea.
When Apollo 14’s Alan Shepard became the first person to hit a golf ball on the Moon Bean asked Conrad “Why didn’t we think of that?”. The answer that came back was simple “we don’t play golf”. Bean thought that they should have done something though, play football perhaps. He can’t go back to correct that in person, but artistic licence has allowed him to imagine the scene in one of his paintings.
“Apollo didn’t do enough things that were fun for humans” says Bean. If we went back, in addition to the science, we should spent 5% of the time doing things that are fun for humans he says. He seems pleased that astronauts on the ISS are finding time to do things like this. He recently met Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata (who is launching to the station later this year) so let’s hope he passed this message on to him.
“When I think of the Earth I think we’re in the garden of Eden” says Bean – joking that it’s even easier to believe that in Pontefract than in Houston!
When the Apollo 12 crew splashed down he thought “Wow – look at that water – so deep and so blue”. They had only been gone 10 days but “we never saw anything going on out there, nothing moved but us three and the spacecraft” he says.
Travelling to the Moon affected him in other ways too: “since I’ve been home I’ve not once complained about the weather – at least we’ve got it” says Bean.
A packed room sat captivated by Bean’s stories, his willingness to share, his art, and his advice (to be covered in a separate post). Going to the Moon is a huge privilege and the great thing is, he knows that. “I feel thankful every day” he says, before leaving us with three wishes:
Light to thy path,
Wind to your sails,
Dreams to thy heart.
We pause for a moment, then applause sweeps across the hall, accompanied by a standing ovation. This man walked on the Moon and there was something very special about hearing all about it first-hand.
It’s Friday 11th October, 2013. I’m aching from a five and a half hour car journey from central London to Pontefract, but as I stretch my legs and make my way into the hotel, I’m already excited. Tonight I’m having dinner with a man who walked on the Moon.
Okay, so I’ve not got a private audience with him, and it appears that I’ve left my smart dress hanging up in my room in London, but who cares. I’ll be in a room, surrounded by people who love space as much as I do, and at the head table will be Alan Bean, the fourth human so step foot on the Moon. That’s exciting.
So let’s reel back for a moment, how did Apollo 12’s Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean, come to be having dinner in Pontefract? It’s all thanks to Ken Willoughby, who has made it his mission to get Apollo astronauts to come and talk to children in local schools. In order to fund these visits, he puts on a dinner and a talk for members of the public – and what a delight they are.
We stand and applaud as our special guest enters the room, but fall silent shortly after as he takes a moment to say a few heartfelt words in tribute to Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, who sadly passed away the day before.
After this moment of quiet reflection, the buzz returns to the room. There’s a great atmosphere as people connected by a shared love of space swap tales of past events and close encounters with astronauts. Some remember the Moon landings, others wish we’d been alive to experience them first-hand, all of us appreciate their significance.
Alan Bean, Moon walker, explorer artist, says a few words about his morning routine. He’s up at 4.45am every morning, to brush his teeth, do some exercise and then get into his studio to paint. “It’s my duty” he says, “I thought if I could learn to paint well enough I could tell some stories that would otherwise get lost”.
“One of the things I loved about being an astronaut was that you are surrounded by people around you that thought you could do really good things if you were prepared to make a sacrifice”. He spoke of the thousands of people who worked to make the Apollo missions possible. Each of them was committed to doing a good job on their individual piece, even if it were just a tiny screw. They all wanted to be able to say “if anything goes wrong on your flight, it won’t be my part” says Bean.
“It just goes to show you what humans can do if they put their minds to it and are willing to sacrifice”.
But what of his views on the Moon these days? “I look at the Moon and I think ‘was I ever blessed to be able to go to the Moon’”. There is a hint of sadness in his voice as he follows up saying “the Moon seems further away now than it ever did”. Bean seems almost unsure that it could be possible to go that far, and yet there he is, standing there as living proof that it is.
His footprints on the Moon are testament to that.
Lynx adverts show their products as having the power to mesmerise and enchant the ladies, instantly drawing them like moths to a flame. They call this “The Lynx Effect”. Today, I confess, I have perhaps been caught under its spell myself.
I’ve spent the day completely absorbed by the idea that the Lynx Space Academy could take me one step closer to space. I know that the odds are stacked against me – not only would I have to beat 249 other people for that chance – but I’d have to do so in a competition created by Lynx, a male grooming brand who’ve made it pretty clear from the start that as a woman, I was not exactly who they were expecting in the competition.
Simple. I really really really want to go to space, but even more importantly, I want to Keep Sexism Out of Space.
In the past month we’ve celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova), the 30th anniversary of the first American woman in space (Sally Ride) and, most excitingly, NASA announced their latest astronaut class which is 50% female – for the first time in history. It’s all so exciting! So positive.
On a smaller scale, the Lynx Astrogrrls have been supporting each other in the Lynx Space Academy Competition from the voting stages – encouraging more women to apply – to this second stage. I cheered for each of them as they dashed through the #LSALive course today and was especially proud of Gillian Finnerty when she was interviewed at the start of the day. She was the first I heard who spoke with genuine passion about going to space. She had it all going for her – the astrophysics, her sporting prowess, her handy rock-climbing hobby – c’mon girl!
Sadly it wasn’t enough.
As I watched more of the coverage I started to worry. They kept talking about the 24 people with the best times on the assault course going through to the next round. A drastic cut from 125 down to 24, purely on the basis of the “Launch Pad” trial. It’s a physical trial. We know that there are physical differences between men and women. Nevermind the Olympics, even The Krypton Factor took this into account for their assault course, so surely Lynx would too?
Apparently not. As a result, not one female made it past the first hurdle.
Despite an official statement previously sent to me from Lynx UK which stated:
“As an advertiser we strive to be responsible, the competition adheres to strict internal and external guidelines. Women can enter this competition, if they were to make it through to the second round they would not be at any disadvantage”
I’m not sure that this is the case. (Though of course I look forward to being proved wrong tomorrow.)
I’m quite upset to be honest. I was getting excited about the competition – nervous, hell yeah! – but excited too. I had some incredible support from people on Twitter after my blog post last night explaining just what it would mean to me to win. Even the LynxEffect Twitter account noted it! Now I don’t know what to feel.
I was going to go all out and embrace the Lynx Space Academy – do it for the fun of it, do my best, and really strive to make it through – but now I’m worried. The fastest time any female got today (even on second attempts later in the day which didn’t count) was 42 seconds. The marathon-running female presenter, Charlie Webster had a personal best of 47 seconds. These are great scores, but I’m hearing you had to be sub-35 seconds to get through. If your specially-selected super-fit presenter wouldn’t make it through to the next round surely that rings alarm bells?
I’m struggling to think of a physical activity on a competitive level that doesn’t have different class for men and women. Because we are different!
The LSA Live presenters said that the inflatable assault course is the same as one used by the army (though at one point during the day they also stated that Uranus was no longer a planet), so couldn’t they look at the average time for men and the average time for women and just take the difference in time off all the female scores? That would be a simple way to balance things out a bit wouldn’t it?
I want to be excited about tomorrow, I am excited about it, I’m just hoping that Lynx haven’t made the mistake of making this physically impossible for a girl to win.
I still get butterflies thinking about how close I am to my dream… I’d do so much with it. I’d be their PR dream of a story if they let me, and I would share the experience and hopefully inspire other girls to aim for the stars too.
I guess I’ll just do my best, I’ll give it all I’ve got, and I just hope that I do you proud (especially you Granny) – whatever the outcome.
I’m petrified. By the end of the weekend I may be one step closer of my dream of getting to space, or, I could have blown it.
On Sunday 14th July, 2013 I will be battling it out against half of the 249 other people that made it through to stage two of the Lynx Space Academy, in an attempt to make it into the next stage. How many go through? Just four.
I’ve been telling myself for weeks that is just a competition, it’s just a marketing ploy, it doesn’t matter what happens… I made my point about women being astronauts and I (with help from others) got Unilever to change the international rules of this competition – so that’s enough isn’t it?
No. It’s not.
This week I have realised just how much this all means to me. Just how much I want to get to space. To prove it can be done, and if this crazy dreamer from East London can do it, perhaps I could inspire some other people too. I’d love that.
I can’t explain it, this passion, this desire to get to space and share that story with other people. I’m so excited by space, it makes my face ache from smiling – when I’m hearing about it from other people – or when I see a sparkle in the eyes of others as I share my wild stories.
I can’t help myself. People on the tube, shop assistants, passers-by when I’m crawling around on the pavement setting my camera up to take an ISS photo – no-one’s safe from me sharing some trinket of space knowledge. The best thing is that people seem to love it, they want to know more, so I share and explain what I can. I’ve inspired people to wave at the space station, travel miles to meet astronauts, and in one case, accidentally caused a total stranger to buy a trans-Atlantic ticket to see a shuttle launch.
My 91 year old grandmother has birthday wishes from space and a little gallery photos of “her spacemen” in her living room. Her octo- and nono-genarian friends call her up when they see space stories in the newspapers. I love it. It’s honour to me that she lives variously through my adventures.
My mother passed away before my space obsession came to light and I sometimes try to imagine her reaction if I were able to tell her I’d met real astronauts. I doubt she’d believe it – sometimes I struggle myself… but it’s true. I regularly pinch myself to check!
So if an East End girl can have friends in (literally) high places (the international space station is between 205-270 miles up (330-435km)) – what’s to say I couldn’t make it through this next challenge? Even if it is improbable, it’s not impossible, right?
But I’m nervous. I’m scared. I’ve even had nightmares about it – about getting so close and just missing out. I’m worried about how crushed I will feel if I don’t make it and I’m trying to prepare for it. I don’t dare imagine how I would react if I got through, but if the past is anything to go by, it would probably involve a lot of high-pitched squeaking (like when I was selected for a NASA shuttle launch TweetUp), an inability to sit still, and probably a lot of bouncing up and down repeatedly telling everyone the news until I was sure it was true. I’d call Granny first off, but when we won the NASA International Space Apps Challenge I was still so excited that she had to tell me to take a deep breath, and slow down so she could work out what I was actually saying!
Of course if I don’t make it through that’s not the end of SpaceKate – oh no! I’ve been SpaceKate for longer than this competition has been around and I’m not about to give it up! It’s just that this is the first genuine shot I’ve got at making it into space before I’m 40 and I really want to give it my all.
So Lynx want marketing, and I want space, now we just need to persuade them that I am the best value story. I think I’ve got a good case, I’ve got the background, the passion and the enthusiasm about sharing the adventure.. perhaps you could share this post and tweet @Lynxeffect to tell them you’re supporting @spacekate for #LSAlive? You know I’d not ask if it didn’t mean as much as it does to me. Thank you in advance – and Poyekhali! (Let’s go!).
The Association of Space Explorers (ASE) is perhaps the most exclusive club in the universe. To be eligible to join you have to have orbited the Earth at least once in a spacecraft. With the entire potential membership extending to only around 550 people, the association is full of national (and international) heroes, and plenty of people with space “firsts”.
At the start of July, the ASE held their 26th Planetary Congress in Germany. With an estimated 89 astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts (and an Ankasayan) in attendance it was an overload for the senses. A small group of spacetweeps were there to share the experience of the opening ceremony and several of the public and educational sessions. I was extremely lucky to be one of them.
As we arrived at the University of Cologne, Joachim Baptiste, Karen Lopezand I took a little time to get our bearings on the university campus. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves unwittingly walking into what could have been the greatest photo-bomb we’d ever achieve. All the space explorers were lined up on the stairs having their group photo taken and we were shuffling around behind them in awe!
The group broke up before I had chance to take a photo from the front and we quickly became lost in a sea of suited astronauts greeting one another. Alexey Leonov, the first person to do a spacewalk, snapping pictures of his colleagues. Italian Paolo Nespoli flashing a smile while Apollo 9′s Rusty Schweickart caught up with friends. I managed to track down Anton Shkaplerov, who I’d met before his first spaceflight, and thank him for sharing his mission with me via email. If only all my Mondays started out like this.
At the opening ceremony we heard from German astronaut, and master of proceedings, Reinhold Ewald and President of the ASE, Romanian astronaut Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu among others. They explained that the aims of the ASE, the only professional association for spacefliers, include facilitating conversation and cooperation between space explorers, educating and inspiring the next generation of scientists and explorers, and raising awareness of our environment.
With their unique perspective of the planet from space, many astronauts have returned to terra firma with a new appreciation of the fragility of spaceship Earth. They are keen to share their experiences and “stimulate humanity’s sense of responsibility for our home planet”.
During the five day congress in Germany, they didn’t just talk about the importance of education and outreach, but actually sent members to 48 different events around the country to talk directly with students and researchers. The huge logistic effort, and commitment shown by the spacefliers, must be applauded.
One of the most difficult problems to solve is how we make space “real” for people. Those of us who are lucky enough to have actually met “a real life astronaut” will remain in the minority, by virtue of the fact that number of astronauts per capita on Earth is tiny. Events like this that connect students with astronauts are priceless. While it’s not easy to quantify, I wouldn’t be surprised if the community day of ASE26 inspired a good number of people to consider science careers, perhaps even inspire them to follow their dreams to space.
“With so many astronauts here, it’s made it easier to get the magic of astronauts out. It’s not always about the details but the emotions” – Reinhold Ewald
During the congress it was also interesting to hear a bit about the early days of the ASE. Founded by a small group of astronauts and cosmonauts (including Schweickart and Leonov) at a meeting near Paris in 1985, they discussed how they could make things better for Earth – “the whole Earth, not the East or the West” says Prunariu. Despite this, the effects of the Cold War couldn’t be escaped, and it wasn’t until 1989 that NASA allowed its astronauts to attend. The meetings tended to split into those who spoke Russian and those who spoke English, but then they started learning each others’ languages so that they could talk directly to one another. From the association’s inception through to today, part of the ASE mission is “to encourage international cooperation in the human exploration of space”.
With the International Space Station providing a constant home to astronauts from around the world, the spirit of cooperation in space seems strong. Let’s hope it stays that way. The expense and technical challenge of reaching new planets is almost certain to require international partnerships.