Astronaut Alan Bean stepped down onto the lunar surface during the 1969 Apollo 12 mission, but left NASA in 1981 to devote himself to painting. With exhibitions of his work taking place this year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing, he tells Nature how he attempts to convey his lunar experience.
How did you become a painter?
Accidentally, I ended up becoming the first artist in history to go anywhere else beyond Earth and paint it. When I got ready to leave NASA, half of the astronauts wondered if this was a worthwhile thing to do with my life. And the others weren't sure. Now they all like it. They can see that I'm preserving one of the great adventures of humankind in a way that is meaningful for them.
Why are your Moon paintings so colourful?
The Moon isn't colourful — it's grey. The sky is black and we run around in white suits. My first paintings were mostly grey, because that's what the Moon is. Now I realize the artist's job is not to reproduce reality.
Why do you use Moon dust and tools from your mission?
The Moon was pretty rugged, so I wanted to put some texture in. The first texture I added was with normal art tools. Then I said “Why am I doing this? I've got Moon tools” — I've got the hammer I had on the Moon; I've got Moon boots.
A friend in charge of a museum requested the Apollo 12 command module, and they shipped it to him in this huge box. He looked in the box and a lot of the charred heat shield had come off, so he vacuumed it up and sent it to me. I put that in there. Then one day I was looking at the patches from my suit and saying “Boy, those things are dirty”. And it dawned on me that they're dirty with Moon dust from the Ocean of Storms. I started cutting them up and put them in too.
What are you working on now?
My current painting tells the story of when I fell down on the Moon and Pete Conrad (Apollo 12's commander) came over and lifted me up with one finger. I'm lying on my butt leaning back and I've got my left arm out. Pete's got his right forefinger around my left forefinger and he's lifting me up. I'm thinking of titling it He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother.
What is your view of the Moon landings 40 years on?
We went to the Moon, truthfully, in peace for all mankind. We were racing the Russians but we didn't try to do anything more than prove that we could do it. It raised the human consciousness on Earth because people said “Look what we can do”. We've got to keep doing these things.
Interview by Daniel Cressey, a reporter for Nature.