Alan Bean: 3 Lessons on Life and Art from the Fourth Man to Walk on the Moon

Recently, the fourth man to walk on the moon Alan Bean passed away. Though this story appears in Real Artists Don’t Starve, the full interview has never been published. Here is his story.

In late 2015 the apparel company Old Navy released a series of children’s T-shirts with “Young Aspiring Artist” written on them but then had the word “Artist” crossed out and replaced with “President” and “Astronaut.”

Photo by Barbara Brannon

Many took offense and went to the Internet to broadcast their discontent. One person on Twitter said: “My high school guidance counselor must have [sic] gotten a job at #oldnavy because she told me an artist wasn’t a career!”

Old Navy publicly apologized and discontinued the shirts, but the question of whether art is a serious career remains. The admonition to not become an artist and choose a safer path may be politically incorrect, but it’s still how many of us think.

In fact, it’s an admonition many artists tell themselves—the kind of negative self-talk that has sabotaged careers. But is it true that being an astronaut is a safer choice than being an artist?

It wasn’t for Alan Bean.

I spoke with Alan on the phone with no idea that less than eighteen months later, he would leave this world. It was honestly one of the most moving and significant conversations I’ve ever had in my life. It only seemed right to share that with others.

On this special episode of The Portfolio Life, I want to share Alan’s story with you and how he accomplished what he set out to do, which was to create meaningful works of art that would leave a legacy. I hope this interview inspires you, in the same way, to leave the familiar for what truly matters. You can also read the rest of the story below, as it appears in my book (with some minor edits).

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From Navy to NASA

As a boy, Alan’s dream was to become a navy pilot, a path he followed with discipline, becoming an aeronautical engineer, then going on to flight training to realize his dream. At this point, Alan thought to himself, This is as good as it gets.

“I thought I had the best job in the world,” he later recalled. But for some reason, it wasn’t enough. He kept looking around at the beautiful things in the world and being captivated by them. He saw his neighbors buy some paintings and thought he could probably paint something that looked just as good.

Alan then enrolled in night school to take classes in drawing and water coloring. He wasn’t any good at first, but he liked it. Many of his navy friends noticed his new hobby and with some concern told him that if he wanted to advance his career, he was better off learning golf.

In the close quarters of the military, his affinity for art might arouse some suspicion, but none of that mattered to Alan. He had always done what was interesting to him, so he kept on painting.

The navy pilot’s career transitioned into an opportunity to work for NASA, where he was even busier than before. When he could find the time, he continued to take art classes from local teachers in the community. Art was his one and only hobby, and he dedicated himself to it with the same discipline that he gave the rest of his career, albeit in smaller doses.

When he was thirty-seven years old, Alan served as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 12, the second mission to the moon. In November 1969, he became the fourth man to walk on the moon, exploring the lunar surface and installing the first nuclear power generator station there. In 1973, he flew on the space station Skylab 3 as the spacecraft commander for fifty-nine days in orbit.

During that time of navigating the cosmos, Alan saw incredible things, things that most people will never get the opportunity to see. One day, while training to fly the space shuttle, he said to himself, “Boy, there’s young men and women around here who can do this as good as I can, but there’s no one who’s been given this gift of walking on the moon.”

It gave him pause.

If I could learn to be better, I could leave stories and images that wouldn’t be done otherwise.

Alan Bean

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From astronaut to artist

In Alan’s mind, anyone could fly the space shuttle, maybe even fly it to the moon. But who else could paint it? It might have been an excess of modesty on his part—astronauts aren’t exactly common— but Alan knew he had a gift that needed to be shared. “If I could leave here,” he said, “and if I could learn to be better, then I could leave stories and images that wouldn’t be done otherwise.”

As he contemplated leaving NASA, the middle-aged astronaut began to count the cost. He’d be given an incredible education and training to become an astronaut, but he’d also been given the gift of art. “You know, I got to thinking,” he said, “It would be nice if Columbus had taken an artist with him. We’d know a lot more. If Magellan had, that would have been a good thing.”

Seeing the moon up close and personal, trudging through the dust beneath his feet—these were experiences no other artist could fully express. No one except Alan. And the more he thought about this, the more excited he became. Soon, the choice was obvious: Alan had to paint the moon, and he had to leave NASA to do it.

That’s how Alan Bean became the first astronaut artist and the only person in history to paint the moon from firsthand experience.

It was my duty to do these paintings and celebrate the great event I was blessed to be part of.

Alan Bean

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On art as a duty

When he left NASA in 1981 to paint full-time, the reaction from Alan’s friends was mixed. “About half thought it was a good idea,” he said.

“The other thought I was having a midlife crisis. And they’d say things to me like, ‘Well, look Alan, you’ve got millions and millions of dollars’ worth of training that other people don’t have. You think this a good way to put it use?’ I’d been given this gift, all this training, all this knowledge that I had. It was unusual.”

But he had considered that already, and this was more than some creative whim. “I’m a guy who has done his duty his whole life,” Alan said. “And, so, I said, ‘This is what I should be doing, because they won’t miss me here. And if I don’t do this, then a lot of these images and a lot of the stories that I captured will be forgotten.'”

Typically, we don’t think of art as a duty. If anything, it’s an indulgence, certainly not a serious career choice as the Old Navy commercial suggested. But is this true? The urge to be creative is one thing, but the call to be an artist is something else. Clearly, Alan Bean considers his work to be the latter. When he finally did resign at fifty years old, Alan was not merely chasing a passion—he was answering a calling.

“I didn’t leave my job as an astronaut because I had this creative urge,” he told me in his Texas drawl over the phone. “I left because I felt it was my duty to do these paintings to celebrate this great event I was blessed to be a part of.”

So, here Alan was with this responsibility to paint the moon, something only he could do, and as he began, he realized some- thing. He wasn’t that good.

I took my work down and compared it to what was in the galleries and what was in the museums and I could see that I wasn’t anywhere near there, and I never would be probably as good as what you see. But I could get better and maybe I could get competitive. Because… if I was going to devote my life to it, I somehow had to make a living doing it.

Alan devoted his life to painting. And for more than three decades, his art has allowed him more than enough to live.

Today, Alan Bean’s artwork is featured in galleries all over the United States, with his paintings selling for tens of thousands of dollars apiece, sometimes more. An original called First Men: Neil Armstrong, a forty-by-thirty-inch textured acrylic, recently sold for $228,600.

He did his duty, and he did it well.

The lessons

There are three lessons I think we can learn from Alan’s life.

  1. Do your duty. If you have something only you can do in this world (and we all do), you must do it and do it well. What this means is that wherever we are in life, we need to be all there. And if what we’re doing is something someone else can do, then it’s time to move on and find our true calling.
  2. Use what you have. Don’t worry about what other people are doing or how they’re doing it. Do life your way on your terms and use the skills and tools and resources available to you—even when those things look like weaknesses or disadvantages. Everything can be useful if you let it.
  3. Support yourself. The money was never the point for Alan. For this astronaut-artist, his work was a duty, and to do that work well, he needed time. And if you make enough money off your art, you have time to make more art. The point was Alan had a gift to share, and he didn’t do it, no one else would. Moreover, he understood something every artist must grapple with: Money is the means, but never the master.

Thank you, Alan, for your art—and for doing your duty. May you rest in peace.


What art will you create to outlast you? Let me know in the comments.