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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Al Bean, Apollo 12 moonwalker, has died

By Phil Plait
Al Bean posing with some of his artwork. Credit: Smithsonian Institution / Carolyn Russo

Al Bean, the fourth human to walk on the Moon, died over the weekend on May 26, 2018.

You can read about him and his place in history on the NASA website obituary. You can get some sense of him there, but what it doesn't really convey is just how funny and personable he was.

There are a lot of books and articles about the shenanigans he and fellow Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon pulled on their mission. They were cutups, and their journey was not at all like the formal voyage Apollo 11 was. I'll leave it to the interested reader to find more.

I met Al a couple of times, both of which were at the SpaceFest conference in different years. He was warm and generous with his time, quick to smile, and clearly just enjoying his life immensely.

I want to take this time to share a story about him, one that's a little different than most you may have heard but which illustrates the man.

First, here is, without contest, my very favorite photograph ever from any Apollo mission. It was taken by Conrad, and shows Al on the surface of the Moon:

Apollo 12 astronaut Al Bean standing on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Oh, do I so love this shot. Al is holding a sample container filled with regolith, the grainy dust coating the lunar surface. You can see Conrad reflected in his helmet. Over Al's shoulder is a sunstrike, streaks of light from the Sun reflected inside the camera. The diffuse pentagon is actually an artifact of the camera's shutter system (the overlapping metal leaves form a distorted pentagon in some settings, which you can see in a Smithsonian photo of the Apollo 11 camera). I love the soft grainy contrast of this photo, the lunar rocks in soft focus and the horizon to the black sky in the background. It's perfection.

My personal story with this photo started with the Moon hoax conspiracy theory. I won't recount the whole there here, but you can read about it in my article about the 10th anniversary of the airing of the despicable Fox TV show about the hoax.

But that photo provided a watershed moment for me not just in debunking the Moon hoax, but in laying waste to conspiracy theories in general; it reminds me that reality is real, and that when you go after anti-science, you're doing the right thing.

So. I lived in California some time back, and not long after I moved there I visited the Gundlach Bunschu winery with some friends. They have some playful wine labels they use, including one for a cabernet sauvignon that features a wildly photoshopped version of that picture of Al on the Moon. I had seen the bottle in stores, but it was a bit pricey for me, so I opted not to get one (a decision I rather regret now).

I loved the label, though, and was delighted to find the winery sold them for a buck each separate from the wine, so I bought a couple.

Fast-forward to a couple of years later. My friend, astronomer and space artist Dan Durda, told me he was going to be at a space art conference and Al — himself an artist — would be there. Dan offered to get me an autograph if I wanted, and I swear the light bulb over my head was a visible thing. I ran to my room, got the labels, and handed them to Dan. He laughed. "Is there anything specific you want him to write?" he asked me.

Why, yes, I replied. Yes, there is.

A wine label signed by astronaut Al Bean. He wrote, “To Phil— Yes, I was there! Al Bean, Apollo 12”. Credit: Gundlach Bundschu / Phil Plait

This is now framed and hanging in my office. It's one of my proudest possessions. I'll add that most astronauts don't want to talk at all about the Moon hoax, seeing as how it disparages their entire profession, careers, and crowning achievement. I can't blame them.

But Al? He didn't even hesitate to sign the labels. I mentioned it to him when I finally met him in person a few years later, and I got a wry chuckle from him; he remembered signing them and thought it was a funny idea.

I'm so glad, so honored to have been able to share a small slice of this man's life. To his friends and family, I offer my condolences. And to everyone else, remember: Only a handful of people today can be placed in the pantheon of space exploration firsts, and those like Al Bean will be remembered by humans — no matter what planet they call home — for centuries to come.