An Amazing Astronaut
What was the world’s impression of the original Astronauts of the ’50s and ’60s? Heroes, experienced jet pilots, brave test pilots: all macho men. Would you believe, when I met him in 1978, one of these macho men was a kindly soul tapping into his creative side?
In the mid-1970s, NASA decided to take a new group of Astronauts who would fly aboard its new vehicle, the Space Shuttle. Crews of up to seven would include pilots, scientists, and engineers. For the first time, women, minorities, and non-pilots could apply.
NASA created a new branch of the Astronaut Office to manage these newcomers, the Astronaut Candidate Operations and Training Group. Imagine how different these Shuttle Astronauts would be— college professors, medical doctors, engineers from obscure labs, women: certainly not all macho men. Helping to select and train these new people undoubtedly was not the most sought-after assignment in the Astronaut Corps.
Captain Alan Bean took on the job of heading the group in 1975. He was a typical manly Astronaut—Naval officer, attack pilot, test pilot school graduate—who was selected to the third group of Astronauts in 1963. He flew on Apollo 12 in 1969, landed the Lunar Module on the Ocean of Storms, and became the fourth man to walk on the moon. In 1973, his crew set a record for longest time in space, 59 days, when he flew aboard the Skylab II mission.
In 1978, the “The Thirty-Five New Guys” invaded the inner sanctum of the Astronaut Corps. When Al looked at his new protégés, he must have shaken his head. Along with fifteen typical pilots, the group included professors with beards and “girls” who didn’t look old enough to drink. He admitted later he doubted some of us could pass the planned training.
But off we went, all over the country, to see if we could be turned into people worthy of spaceflight.
Through water survival, parachute training, SCUBA lessons, and endless hours of classes, he watched us soldier on. On one of our airline flights to visit a NASA Center, I sat next to Al and asked him what he planned to do after he retired. His answer took me by surprise; he wanted to be an artist. He told me he was taking art lessons and doing some paintings. As one of only twelve men who had walked on the moon, he wanted to capture what that looked like. But the landscape was drab with only dunes of moon dust in varying shades of gray. He had hit upon the idea of using the humans and their equipment to put color in the scene. What an amazing niche for a former moon-walker!
As years went by, his style developed, and I saw the amazing results. Unable to afford his paintings, I bought several posters and beautiful books of his work which Al always autographed for me.
Al passed away suddenly and unexpectedly a few weeks ago. He left behind a legacy of vivid colors and thirty-five grateful “new guys,” all of whom flew in space. I wonder in his last flight from this Earth, past the moon and into the heavens, if he was thinking of a painting not yet completed.