- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

Four decades have passed since the first lunar landing, but that glorious event is still fresh in the brush strokes painted by former astronaut Alan Bean. Unlike his colleague Neil Armstrong who rarely discusses his pioneering steps on the moon, Mr. Bean continually celebrates past trips to the satellite through acrylics on canvas.

“I am trying to tell stories that would be lost forever if I didn’t tell them,” he says. “Some people are too young to remember the Apollo missions.”

An exhibition of Mr. Bean’s paintings at the National Air and Space Museum presents scene after scene of helmeted astronauts set against barren terrain and dark skies. His paintings are formulaic in terms of their repeated subject matter and technique, but they still manage to convey the wonder of lunar exploration in a quiet, documentary way.

These nostalgic pictures, their frames filled with men in clunky gear, recall the remarkable program undertaken by NASA from 1968 to 1972 to explore uncharted destinations in space.

Only six of the Apollo missions landed on the moon, allowing 12 men to experience a world far from Earth. Mr. Bean captures those adventures and his own journey as the lunar module pilot of Apollo 12. In November 1969, he became the fourth man to set foot on the moon.

On a tour of the museum exhibit, the 77-year-old artist points to a self-portrait capturing the way he “pranced” with his arms at his sides in the low-gravity atmosphere. “I felt I could have run a marathon and not have gotten tired.”

In another picture, he is shown sprinting across the crater-pocked landscape to catch a football thrown by his mission commander Pete Conrad. The episode is imaginary, but “as an artist I can show what could have happened,” he notes.

Mr. Bean took up painting in the early 1960s while working as a Navy test pilot. After leaving NASA in 1981, he devoted his energies to picturing moonscapes through his memories, remembrances of colleagues, photographs and videotapes.

“I used to paint earthly landscapes until my astronaut friends asked me why I was painting the Earth when I had been one of the few to leave the Earth,” the former astronaut says.

At first, his outer-space landscapes were gray and lifeless, faithful to what astronaut Buzz Aldrin calls the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar terrain.

“As time passed, I began to change the colors to reflect how I felt emotionally,” Mr. Bean explains. Inspired by his favorite artist, Claude Monet, he added impressionistic effects and textured backgrounds to his realistic pictures.

The former astronaut now begins a painting by applying acrylic modeling paste to a panel of aircraft plywood. While the paste is still soft, he stamps a moon shoe onto the surface and scores other areas with the hammer he used to break off lunar rocks. The resulting relief appears similar to the surface of the moon after the astronauts left their footprints.

Mr. Bean then adds tiny bits of the patches from his spacesuit that still bear traces of moon dust. “I often wonder if there’s a cosmic ray in my paintings,” he chuckles. He sometimes incorporates pieces of foil from the command modules sent into space.

In creating his scenes, the astronaut-artist typically uses the photographs taken on the moon as a starting point. As noted in the exhibit catalog, he follows in the footsteps of 19th-century artists who explored the nation’s Western frontier. Painter Thomas Moran, for example, relied on William Henry Jackson’s 1871 photos of Yellowstone to create his panoramic landscapes.

To capture specific moments on the moon, such as Apollo 17’s Jack Schmitt skiing down a hill, Mr. Bean often manipulates small figural models to capture the right pose.

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