KIRCHER | My conversation with astronaut Alan Bean

It was 2002. Maybe 2003. I can't remember because I didn't write down the date.

I had graduated from college not long before, with a degree in business accounting. The family business had dissolved a few months earlier, and now I was out on my own, with no job, in my tiny apartment, trying to hack it as a freelance journalist. I had a handful of national magazine articles under my belt, and a smattering of local papers I regularly wrote for (Business First, Snitch, a couple of corporate clients, etc).

At the time, Business First had a column, called "Getting Ahead of the Curve," edited by crack super-journalist Amy Board Higgs. It was a column for young professionals, by young professionals, and when Amy didn't write it, she often had one of us freelancers stand in. Over a couple of years, I wrote about a dozen of those columns, and as my uncle -- a man with a keen eye for entrepreneurship who regularly read Business First -- once dryly observed, I had a knack for shoehorning in topics for a business weekly that had nothing at all to do with business. Usually with a few corny jokes thrown in for good measure.

Well, the e-mail came from Amy: she needed another column. Write something. It didn't matter what, really. We're on deadline, after all. Just bring the young professional's perspective to it.

I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. A self-professed NASA geek, who was looking for an excuse to interview historically significant people, I had made it my goal to talk to one of the handful of men still alive who had walked on the Moon.

I knew Neil Armstrong was out. As everyone knew, that guy just didn’t do media, period. But maybe someone else?

I did some digging. I asked around. And that's when a little birdie gave me Alan Bean's home phone number.

Bean wasn't the first man to walk on the Moon on Apollo 12. He was the fourth. But it was just the second time we'd landed there. Though the Moon landings happened long before I was born, I could still remember being a seventh grader sitting in Mrs. Lee's class at Highview Baptist Christian School (now Whitfield Academy), reading "My Life as an Astronaut," the children's book written by Bean (co-authored by Beverly Fraknoi). I remembered reading Bean's description of how lightning struck the Saturn V rocket shortly after liftoff, and how, even in the relative safety of Mrs. Lee's history class, it made me grip the desk just a little bit tighter.

Yeah, I was cool with talking to Bean.

I was a bit nervous when I dialed the number. That kind of came through just now when I re-listened to the digital recording, made from the original tape cassette of the phone conversation. But it was okay. I was about to talk to Alan Bean. The lunar module pilot on Apollo 12. The spacecraft commander for Skylab 3. One of only a handful of men in the history of men to ever set foot on the moon.

** THE PHONE RINGS **

BEAN: Hello?

ME: Yes, is Mr. Alan Bean there?

BEAN: Uh…that's me.

I told him I was a writer for Business First. I apologized over and over again if I was catching him at a bad time -- but I wanted to see if I could talk to him for a few minutes about…(What was it…? What was it I wanted to talk to him about…? I gotta come up with something!)…uh…space policy. Yeah, that's it. What did he think about President Bush's space policy?

"I could talk right now for a few minutes," Bean said. "Go ahead."

WOO-HOO! I had Alan Bean on the phone for an interview. Now I could ask him all about going to the Moon. Camping on the Moon. Getting struck by lightning after the launch. Looking out the window. All of it.

So I threw out my first question: Tell me what it felt like to ride the most powerful rocket ever invented in the history of mankind?

"I won't do that," Bean snapped. "You can look that up on the Internet."

ZING!

It was as if I was a baseball pitcher and I had lobbed him an easy, underhanded softball and he cracked it back at me, hitting me in the stomach. Taken aback, I was shell-shocked for a moment.

"Okay," I recovered. "Can you tell me what zero gravity is like?"

"I won’t do any of that," he retorted. "I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you’re writing an article about Bush, I can make a comment about his new proposal -- stuff like that. All that other stuff, I’ve done a million times. So has everybody else. You can look it up if you’re really interested."

ZING!

His comments sound harsh on paper, but it was hard to dislike the gentle, grandfatherly voice on the other end of the line. But darn it, I had ALAN BEAN on the phone, and all he wanted to talk about was legislation, politics and President Bush.  

I should have known what he was doing. Whether he intended to or not, Bean was teaching me a valuable lesson about journalism: stick to the story. And get over your hero worship.

So we talked politics – and the future.

“I think we will eventually go back to the moon, but it’s going to take a lot of money to do it -- let’s say something like $170 billion, I believe -- and as a result, I don’t see anybody wanting to put up that kind of money,” he said. “And I don’t see President Bush going to try to convince anybody to put up that kind of money. He’s got bigger problems.”

Bush became the target of a couple more barbs.

“President Bush says we’re going to save the money and then do it with that. Well, that’s great talk. In my opinion -- and it’s just my opinion -- you can’t do that. There’s not enough you could save if you saved it all.”

“I think that’s where the American people are right now. We’ll put a minimum amount of money in to keep everybody prepared just in case we need them. So we’ll build a space shuttle and we’ll build a space station. We’ll work at that level of money and that level of effort. But that level of effort will not get you back to the moon.”

It turned out to be a great interview. He was kind and gave me plenty of comments. According to the digital recording, it lasted all of 16 minutes. I thanked him, hung up, and cranked out a column. Somehow I found a way to relate his comments to the business world, showing how the imagination, creativity and innovation that fueled the space race can also help young entrepreneurs “launch” their businesses, blah, blah, blah.

It turned out to be a decent column. I think Amy was pleased.

If you saw the news this weekend, Alan Bean died Saturday. He was 86.

There’s another reason I was excited to interview Bean. Go back and watch the old videos of the Apollo landings. Then watch the videos of Apollo 12.

One of the things NASA is notorious for is taking one of the most exciting concepts imaginable – space exploration – and making it boring. Whether it’s unnecessary acronyms or a die-hard commitment to convention and decorum, NASA can make even landing on the Moon – the ultimate camping trip – and put you to sleep.

But not Alan Bean. Not Pete Conrad. Go back and watch the video. When they landed on the Moon’s Ocean of Storms in November 1969, they were positively giddy.

“Okay. I’m trying to cheat and look out there; I think I see my crater!” Conrad shouts. “Hey, there it is! There it is! Son of a gun, right down the middle of the road!”

“Outstanding!” Bean replies. “42 degree Pete!”

“Look out there!” Conrad says a moment later. “I can’t believe it! Amazing! Fantastic…that’s so fantastic I can’t believe it!”

Then they descend to just 300 feet over the Moon’s surface.

“Hey, look at that crater, right where it’s supposed to be!” Conrad shouts. “Hey, you’re beautiful!”

Finally they land. They may be second, but they came in Number One for enthusiasm.

“Good landing Pete!” Bean shouts. “Outstanding, man…beautiful!”

Listen to the recording and you’ll find yourself cheering with them. These guys got it. They were landing on the Moon, and they weren’t going to act like it was anything less than the coolest thing ever.

Then watch the recording of the next moon landing on Apollo 14. Those guys sound like they’re on tranquilizers. No doubt the suits at NASA had some conversations behind-the-scenes about "professionalism" and decorum.

Alan Bean got it. He may have worked in a bureaucracy, but he never let that eclipse the wonder and excitement of what that bureaucracy was doing.  When he left NASA, he turned that wonder and curiosity to art, painting the lunar landscape he came to know so well, creating, "the first paintings of another world from an artist who was actually there."

I’ll leave you with some additional quotes from our interview:

“I think one thing that is important to realize is that these sorts of things [like returning to the Moon] take time. There was 128 years between Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492 and when the Pilgrims landed in 1620. Well, it hasn’t been 128 years since Neal Armstrong first landed on the moon. We tend to think in one lifetime’s numbers or even one professional lifetime’s numbers -- 30 or 40 years. But that isn’t the way history moves. History moves much slower than that, in general. Particularly in those kinds of issues – scientific advancement.”

“We might just have to wait a little while. We’ll eventually get there. We’ll eventually have cities on the moon. We’ll eventually go to Mars and we’ll have cities on Mars and all that. But it will take maybe 1,000 or 2,000 years. I don’t really know. Nobody is going to stop the progress as humankind, but it doesn’t always go as fast as we would like it. We do what the American people want us to do.”

“That’s just my take on it, by the way. Other people will have a different take and I’m sure you have a good opinion yourself.”

In the history of mankind, only 12 people have walked on the Moon. After Bean’s death on Saturday, only four are left. 

Rest in peace, Captain Alan Bean. And on this Memorial Day, we thank you.

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