Alan Bean: Out of this world

Alan Bean is one of only 12 men to have walked on the Moon. Now, his mission is to record his adventures for mankind on canvas, he tells Charlotte Cripps
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The Independent Online

Captain Alan Bean piloted the Apollo 12 lunar module, the second lunar landing, in 1969. He was the fourth astronaut to walk on the Moon. He became a professional artist after he retired. "It slowly began to dawn on me that I had seen things that no artist has ever seen," says Bean. "At first, I just wanted to be an even better astronaut. I went on to be the spacecraft commander of the second Skylab mission in 1973 and spent 59 days in space. But in 1981, I resigned from Nasa to paint full-time."

Bean, 74, now works from his studio in Houston, Texas, where he has been painting bright and colourful space art ever since he gave up space travel. Hanging on his studio wall is his favourite painting, Feelin' Fine, of a confident moonwalker, standing in a spacesuit, with his hands on his hips. The Mountains of the Moon - Their Inherent Majesty shows the moon's craters, while Hello Universe, set against a deep-pink sky, shows a lone astronaut with his arms outstretched to convey joy. That's How It Felt to Walk on the Moon is a self-portrait of Bean in a spacesuit, submerged in mist. Helping Hands shows both Bean and fellow moon-mate Pete Conrad working together. Kissing the Earth shows our planet as Bean looked out of the small window of the lunar module while orbiting the Moon.

Bean recently appeared at the Roundhouse in Camden, north London, to talk about his work as part of Space Soon, an exhibition that "rethinks the human desire to leave the cradle of the Earth". Organised by the Arts Catalyst, Space Soon examines the role of art in understanding the universe, with live events, screenings and debates, including a gigantic 22m-high rocket, Gravity, being built from industrial scrap by Aleksandra Mir.

Bean often looks up at the Moon and wonders: "How did I get up there? I was just a regular guy." He has now completed 180 paintings. He gets up at 5am every day and begins painting by 8.30am, "after eating a doughnut". He works six days a week, finishing at 6.30pm, with a few hours' nap at lunchtime. "I want to do the best I can with the time I have left on Earth," he says.

How it feels to be standing on the Moon is an emotion that Bean has difficulty portraying. "Although the sky was black and the surface was grey and it looked otherworldly, it wasn't unfamiliar because of our training," says Bean. "We only had 33 hours on the Moon, and seven hours' moon-walking, exploring the surface outside. My first thought was: 'I've got to get my balance.' And then: 'I've got to work on my checklist,'" he recalls. "I didn't have a lot of time to reflect, but as I was running between sights, I would look up and think: 'That's the Earth, this is the Moon.' Then I would get my mind back to the job."

On the way home, Bean had more time to ponder his unusual experience. "I'd dreamed of going to the moon," he says. "I'd thought of it every day. Then it was all over in 10 days. There was a feeling of 'Is that it?'"

Bean has just finished a new painting, Is Anyone Out There?, of himself on the Moon, leaning back, with his palms up, begging for an answer to this universal question.

It was a big risk for Bean to visit the Moon. "We were hit by lightning," he says, "but we were lucky not to have any other problems." But it was an equally big risk to walk out of Nasa to become an artist. "My boss nearly fell off his chair when I told him," he recalls. "But I didn't want to stay and fly space shuttles anymore. I needed to paint my experience. It was a great adventure for humankind that I felt a duty to record."

The exhibition Space Soon: Art and Human Spaceflight/Secret Artist on the Moon, The Roundhouse, London NW1 (08703 891 846;, continues to 13 September