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The Art of Alan Bean - Way, Way Out There

While 1960s icon John Glenn beams down interviews from Earth orbit, another astronaut from NASA's glory days is on his own space mission: to share the adventure of the Apollo moon landings with as many people as possible.

For 17 years, Alan Bean has wielded a paintbrush full time to chronicle his experiences and those of fellow astronauts in one of the 20th century's greatest technical feats. Photos of 93 of those paintings appear in the new book "Apollo: An Eyewitness Account," published by the Greenwich Workshop Press in Shelton, Conn., to mark next year's 30th anniversary of the first moon landings. The paintings are accompanied by Mr. Bean's descriptions as told to science writer Andrew Chaikin.

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With the wealth of photos, videotapes, and 16-millimeter movie film the Apollo astronauts brought back from the moon, why did Bean turn to painting to depict the experience? "It was such an incredible, uplifting adventure that any way it can be preserved or celebrated or further explained is good," Bean responds in an interview. "An artist is not charged with duplicating nature so much as showing it to us in a way so that maybe we can appreciate it more. It's an additional way to celebrate these things."

The paintings not only trace the Apollo program; they also trace Bean's journey from "a good amateur artist to an acceptable professional." "I was always interested in art," he says, "although my interest was way down the ladder compared with flying. It never became important until I had satisfied myself as a [Navy] test pilot and was flying every day."

The biggest challenge, he says, was to buck his engineering background and think like an artist. The principles of art were as easy to learn as the principles behind flying, but much harder to practice, he says. "When [you're] an artist, you're trying to find your own way - your own subjects, your own colors, your own way of doing it. When I'm frustrated, I'll say, 'Boy, it wasn't like this in engineering.' But that's OK. That's why they call it art."

In 1981 Bean left NASA to devote himself fully to painting.

By showing how much was accomplished using the Apollo program's now-primitive technology, Bean says he hopes to inspire future generations. "My dream is that this book shows up in schools 100 or 200 years from now," he says. "Maybe kids are living on the moon then. Maybe they will look through the book and say: 'Look how bulky those suits are. Look at how clumsy those rockets looked. It's a wonder they ever got here.' "

He also dismisses the notion that he'll reach a "been there, done that" moment and turn to new subjects. "That wouldn't be smart for me," he says. Painting moonscapes and their human visitors is "the only place where I'm unique and have a chance to make a special contribution."

As he looks to the future he's somewhat daunted by the number of scenes he'd like to paint. He produces only four paintings a year to sell. The next one, Bean says, commemorates a personal highlight. Just after stepping onto the moon for the first time, he reached into his space-suit pocket, pulled out his silver "rookie astronaut" pin, and tossed it far out onto the Sea of Storms.

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Kodak wasn't there, so Bean will capture the moment on plywood and acrylic.

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