Artist-astronaut Alan Bean, the moonwalker who saw himself as different from the rest, died today at the age of 86 at Houston Medical Hospital.
Bean’s death followed a sudden illness that befell him two weeks earlier during a trip to Fort Wayne, Ind., for a school fundraising event.
He became the fourth human to walk on the moon during the Apollo 12 mission in November 1969, exploring Oceanus Procellarum alongside the late astronaut Pete Conrad. Bean also commanded the second crewed flight to Skylab, America’s first space station, in 1973.
“Alan was the strongest and kindest man I ever knew. He was the love of my life, and I miss him dearly,” Leslie Bean, his wife of 40 years, said in a statement released by NASA and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. “A native Texan, Alan died peacefully in Houston surrounded by those who loved him.”
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the space agency mourned his loss.
“Alan Bean once said ‘I have the nicest life in the world,’ ” Bridenstine said in a statement. “It’s a comforting sentiment to recall as we mourn his passing.”
Bean served as a test pilot in the U.S. Navy, and was among 14 trainees who were selected by NASA in 1963 for its third group of astronauts — after the Mercury Seven and the New Nine.
“Alan and I have been best friends for 55 years — ever since the day we became astronauts,” said Walt Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7. “We are accustomed to losing friends in our business, but this is a tough one.”
Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, the only professional scientist to walk on the moon, praised the contribution that Bean and Conrad made to lunar geology. He said the 75 pounds of lunar samples they collected were “a scientific gift that keeps on giving today and in the future.”
“Their description of bright green concentrations of olivine (peridot) as ‘ginger ale bottle glass,’ however, gave geologists in Mission Control all a big laugh, as we knew exactly what they had discovered,” Schmitt said in a statement.
Bean retired from the Navy in 1975, and from NASA in 1981. He then turned his attention to what Schmitt called a “third career” as a painter.
Over the course of that third career, Bean created more than 100 paintings that he said marked “the beginning of a new category in the progression of art history: art of human experiences off our home planet.”
“I have the honor and responsibility of being first,” he said.
Bean’s favorite theme was to depict astronauts in flight or on the lunar surface. One of his favorite tricks was to sprinkle a little moondust from his lunar patches onto his canvases as he painted. He also liked to use a moon boot to add texture to the paint.
“Long after I’m gone, people will have these paintings with dust and footprints in them,” he said in a 1997 interview. “It will be something really special for people to enjoy and remember.”
A decade later, Bean told me that his brain must have been wired differently from the norm for astronauts.
“A lot of things I think about come from the right side of my brain,” he said in 2007. “And for most of the other guys, most of the things they think about come from the left side. And it got me in trouble at NASA at first.
“I just say it how I think it, even though other people will say, ‘That’s weird,’ because it’s from the other side of the brain,” he said.
Bean’s passing means only four of the 12 Apollo moonwalkers are still alive, with a string of lunar landing anniversaries due to begin next year. The four are Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, 88; Apollo 15’s Dave Scott, 85; Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke, 82; and Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, 82.
In addition to his wife, Leslie, Alan Bean is survived by a sister, Paula Stott; and two children from a previous marriage, Amy Sue Bean and Clay Bean.