FIFTY-TWO

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE ASTRONAUT? I do. It's true. My favorite astronaut is Alan Bean. He was the 4th man to walk on the moon. He flew on Apollo 12 with Pete Conrad, and Dick Gordon. Dick Gordon stayed in the command module while, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean stepped onto the surface of the moon. Just before they closed the hatch between the lunar lander and the command module, Alan Bean looked at Dick Gordon and thought, "I sure hope I see you again." He didn't say it, though. The Apollo astronauts were old school macho tough.

Pete Conrad is on the far left, Dick Gordon is in the middle, and that's Alan Bean, my fav on the right. This picture sums this crew up. They spent endless hours working together at some pretty tough, pretty complex stuff, but they figured they might as well have fun doing it. They are my kind of peeps.

Pete Conrad was knowing for being pretty wild. A newsman made a bet with him about what he would say when he stepped onto the moon. The newsman didn't believe that NASA wouldn't dictate what he had to say. Pete Conrad argued that no one told him what he had to say, and that he would make it up on the spot. True to his word, his first words on the moon were, "Whee!!! That might've been a short one for Neil but it's long one for me!" He was shorter than Neil Armstrong and thought it would be funny. He was also on the crew in the early days of Skylab, and when his crew left, he left behind his spare space suit - sitting in a chair. I wish we could've seen the look on the faces of the next crew -- who was expecting to find an empty station -- only to find a lonely figure sitting in a chair.

 

The astronauts of the Apollo era were tough guys. They didn't talk about their feelings. They didn't hold community circles. They didn't tell each other their deepest secrets. They lived in a world where men were expected to be unbreakable. The Apollo astronauts went through insanely rigorous training, and suffered horrible devastation -- the Apollo 1 fire killed their best friends: Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffe and Ed White. Still, they all kept going.

This brings me to Alan Bean, my favorite astronaut. His experience in space and working with the Apollo 12 crew were monumental -- how could they not be? He left the bounds of earth, and set his foot on the moon. I always think of the Apollo 12 astronauts when I look up at the moon. When they stood in their backyards looking up into the sky after their days in space, it must have been so strange to be able to remember, "I've been there." They didn't talk about this, of course. It was a powerful and unique experience that happened to just twelve men. (They wouldn't let any girls join their club! In the early days of the program there wasn't a woman's bathroom at the space center).

lan Bean said that he gazed out of the window of the command module on their ride home, and thought, "Is that all there is?" He said in the long run, traveling into space was really no different than any other road trip. It was a journey like any other -- filled with complications (The Apollo 12 rocket was hit by lightening during liftoff), and incredible experiences. He was grateful to have travelled so far with good friends.

 

Gazing back at the bright blue earth from the stark moon, he came to understand that he was just one small person living in a giant universe and what did it matter what he did or what he said. Now this could sound depressing, but really he found it empowering. He realized it didn't matter what anyone thought. He could do the things that mattered most to him, and if the world around him judged him for it -- who cared? 

You see, Alan Bean had a secret. He wasn't like the other astronauts. He was a dreamer, a poet, and a painter. Before his trip to the moon he could never have turned to John Glenn and said, "You ever think about how pretty the sky is at night?" He could never admit to Jim Lovell, "I really love painting. It fills my soul, you know?" These were secrets he kept buried inside himself. Returning from his days on the surface of the moon, though, he felt empowered and freed - to be himself: An astronaut, a scientist AND an artist. He returned to the earth, and continued on in his career, but he also painted.

I have one of his lithographs. My father, who is infinitely sweet, bought it for me because I saw it at an art studio, and loved it. I loved the idea that even a tough old astronaut can be reborn. I love that a former fighter-pilot can transform himself into an artist -- no more than that, I love the idea that a man can be a fighter pilot, an astronaut AND an artist.

For some of us, it takes leaving the bounds and safety of the world we know for us to finally be able to take that first step into an unknown future filled with possibility. I guess, like any astronaut, you just have to be brave enough to make the leap and let go .If you are lucky, like Alan Bean, that future will be filled with good friends who will believe in the power of unique voices and wild dreams. They will encourage you to pick up your brush and paint. They will encourage you on your journey. It is the only journey worth taking and the truest road we ever travel.

--Jen