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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Speaking of Science: The first artist from another world

Speaking of Science
Sarah Kaplan and Ben Guarino on Science

Astronaut and artist Alan Bean stands in front of one of his paintings at the National Air and Space Museum in 2009. (Michael Temchine/For The Washington Post)

Astronaut Alan Bean, who died Saturday at 86, was the fourth person to walk on the moon and the fourth person to visit Skylab — the U.S.'s first space station.

But he was the first person to return from another world and make art about what he saw there.

"I'd never imagined myself as an artist," Bean said in a documentary for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "And then I thought, you know, I am the only potential artist that's ever been anywhere but this Earth, maybe I can make a contribution in art. Maybe I can tell some stories that would be lost forever."

The paintings Bean created after his retirement from NASA in 1981 were painstakingly precise recreations of his experiences in space. He often pored over photographs and interviewed colleagues to get the details exactly right. Planetary scientist Phil Metzger, who once interviewed Bean for a study on Apollo 12, recalled on Twitter that the astronaut even built a diorama of the landing site to make sure the shadows and perspective in his paintings were accurate.

This photograph of the eclipse of the sun was taken from the Apollo 12 spacecraft during its trans-Earth journey home from the moon. (NASA Johnson Space Center)

Many of the paintings also bear a physical link to Bean's time on the moon. For some works, he textured the wet paint using soil tools like the ones he used during his mission. Other paintings are marked by footprints — Bean walked across them wearing the same boots that trod the surface of the moon. These tiny traces of another world made his work "special," Bean told Astronomy magazine — something no other artist on Earth could create.

Likewise, Metzger pointed out in his Twitter thread, Bean depicted the world of the moon as no other astronaut could. Though 11 other people visited Earth's only satellite, Bean went there with an artist's eye as well as a scientist's mind.

-- Sarah

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