The recent deaths of two astronauts allows a contrast of fame and anonymity among some of the most unique and visible people in human history.
Passing into eternity were the fourth man to walk on the Moon, Alan Bean, 86, and the first to spacewalk in the Space Shuttle cargo bay, Don Peterson, 84. Bean was celebrated world-wide as the last survivor of the three-man Apollo 12 crew that went to the Moon in 1969. Peterson’s passing sent space lovers wondering, “Who?” Both men were so much more than their space missions and shared the unique bond of being a space flier—arguably the most unique career ever.
Think about this: since the first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, there have been exactly 536 humans who can say they’ve been blasted into space (as of June 1, 2018). Now in that 57 years, a lot of people have been born in the world who could have been astronauts. Just how many? In 1960 the world population was around 4 billion. Today in 2018, that has doubled to 8 billion. So, it’s safe to say that births and deaths could account for about 4 billion humans in the last five decades born and matured in the work force. Only 536 have become space men and women, most of them Americans, then Russians and another three dozen from other countries taken to space by the two Superpowers. China has added to the total with its growing space program.
The point is, when you meet an astronaut—and many of us have or will—you are meeting a person who has gone through some very specialized training like no other. It makes brain surgeons a dime a dozen! At the forefront of human space travel were Bean and Peterson, both chosen as astronauts in the 1960s destined for very separate paths that never crossed. Bean was a Navy man, training at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Maryland, where future Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad was his instructor and future crewmate Dick Gordon was a fellow flier.
Apollo 12 was a perfect mission with one of NASA’s tightest crews, a real “band of brothers.” While Gordon orbited the Moon in the Command Module “Yankee Clipper,” Conrad flew the Lunar Module “Intrepid” with Bean giving flight guidance. The pin-point landing a few hundred yards from an unmanned Surveyor III spacecraft was a lot smoother than Apollo 11’s landing four miles long from its target. They stayed on the Moon for a day, making two, four-hour excursions outside their moon ship.
After his amazing rookie voyage at age 37, Bean stayed with NASA and backed up the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project with Russia, and then became the commander of Skylab 3. That was a hugely successful 59-day mission with Jack Lousma and Owen Garriott in America’s first space station.
After 18 years as an astronaut, Bean retired to pursue his true love, painting. With the unique perspective of living in Earth orbit and walking on the Moon, Bean went to art school and honed his natural talent for oil painting. He focused on the subject he knew best, the Moon, and incorporated in his paintings the unique experiences of the other 11 moonwalkers.
Painting one day, Bean looked at his mission patches framed as a keepsake, and realized they were dirty with moon dust! He collected the priceless moon grains, cut up some of the patches, and mixed them in the base paint for all his work, adding a lunar touch—as well as lots of dollar signs. Bean textured the canvas base with the imprint of a training moon boot and marks from a hammer he used on the Moon. Many of Bean’s large paintings sell for $30,000, his commissions even more. A book of his excellent artwork, “Apollo,” is quite popular.
Bean, a native Texan, bragged that he was the only human on Earth who could paint the Moon, because he’s the only one to know if it was right or not. Away from the fame of a moonwalker, astronaut Peterson had quite an interesting career filled with “What ifs.” The Mississippi native was a West Point graduate and his brilliance found him at the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. In 1963 Peterson was chosen for a special group of astronauts in the U.S. Air Force’s manned spaceflight program, the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL). This was a separately funded program from NASA.
The successor to the cancelled Boeing X-20 Dyna-Sour spy space plane, MOL was a military outpost from Earth orbit. A cylindrical, 70-foot “laboratory” and the two-man Gemini “B” space craft would be stacked and launched on a Titan rocket. A hatch through the heatshield would give access to the MOL and a 40-day mission of surveillance and (some) science. Declassified MOL files reveal that astronauts were training to fly a protype of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) once used for untethered flight from the Space shuttle. One of the MMU uses by MOL astronauts was to fly over and inspect up close orbiting satellites (or maybe even disable them?)
The Air Force MOL program was cancelled in 1969 as it became clear that unmanned reconnaissance satellites could do the important job of national security from Earth orbit. Lt. Col. Peterson and a dozen other MOL astronauts found their way into the Space Transportation System of NASA and the complex space truck, the Shuttle. Many of the MOL program details are buried in classified Air Force files, so Peterson must have been involved in some very interesting training. His Air Force experience as a nuclear systems analysist must have come in handy.
Peterson’s day in the limelight came at age 49 in April 1983 when Orbiter Challenger made its maiden voyage. The five-day mission of four astronauts included the program’s first spacewalk as Peterson and Story Musgrave tested the airlock, new spacesuits and maneuvering techniques in the Shuttle’s huge, 40-foot cargo bay.
Don Peterson retired from NASA a year after his Challenger flight and entered the private aerospace industry. He blended back into the aviation world as an outstanding consultant, once having had a “one-in-a-hundred-million job” as astronaut. Quite a contrast from the “astronaut for life” that Alan Bean became and proudly shared with the world in his art. Both are space heroes, forever speeding in the future as part of the history of a rare and beautiful brethren known as astronauts.