Exclusive Interview With Alan Bean
Parent & Child: What advice do you have for a child who wants to go into space?
Alan Bean: To become an astronaut, kids need to learn [everything] the teachers are teaching them in the grade level. I didn't know that when I was in school; I just learned the subjects that interested me-like math and science. I didn't pay as much attention as I should have to other things like English, and I found out that that was a big mistake. One of the first things I did out of college, after joining the navy, was take an English class at night school to be a better naval officer. I learned to spell, which I never bothered learning in school. After you leave high school and college-that's when you specialize. If they want to be an astronaut, kids need to decide what kind. They have to decide if they want to be the kind that flies, or the scientist who stays behind. If they want to fly, they should focus on becoming a pilot. If they want to be a geologist on the Moon, they need to study geology and, later, apply it to being an astronaut. So, in school they need to learn, and they need to get good grades.
P&C: What was more challenging, traveling to the moon or being a parent?
Bean: Well, I would say flying airplanes and flying spaceships is hard work, but you're trained how to do those things. Being a parent is more difficult because you're dealing with other smaller human beings that grow up to be bigger human beings, and you don't always know exactly what to do. I have two children and eight grandchildren, and I have learned that every single one of them is different. So, if I say to something to my children, maybe it connects with them and maybe it doesn't. You have to try a lot of ways to connect with them. I don't know the answer to parenting. I believe it's more difficult to figure out what works.
P&C: To the best of your ability, describe weightlessness.
Bean: It's difficult to do because there's nothing on Earth that simulates it. The closest approximation is when you get in a swimming pool and just float. That's not perfect because, if you move your hands and legs, the water pushes against you and moves you around and you feel it. But if you don't move, then you get that same sense of weightlessness. When you're weightless and you move your arms and legs it doesn't have any effect. You have to touch something solid, like the side of the spacecraft. Walking on the Moon, though, is 1/6th gravity. There it just felt like I was extra strong. I could pick things up that I couldn't on Earth, I could jump higher, and I knew why when I thought about it. But, when I didn't think about it, it just felt like I had extra energy-so that was fun. There are just some things that you have to experience.
P&C: What did you do for fun in space?
Bean: As an astronaut, you're trying to optimize the money being spent on you as an explorer. However, on the way to and from the Moon, a trip that takes roughly two days each way, there isn't really much to do except to think about what you're going to do when you reach your destination. You get ready for any engine burns, or you check the spacecraft. You exercise to stay in shape, or you read a book to exercise your mind. We listened to music, also. In the future, maybe there will be more things to do-like watch videos or bring your iPod. Believe me, your mind is focused on the mission and the next step. You're waiting, planning, and going over your notes because you want everything to go according to plan.
P&C: Why is space exploration still relevant?
Bean: Humans consistently try to improve their quality of life using technology and innovation. They get tired of sweating and decide to invent air conditioning. They grow tired of riding horses, especially in cold weather, so they decide to invent cars. That's the case of mankind throughout history: humans wanting to improve what they're doing and how they do it. The technology we develop to go to the Moon will be useful in our day-to-day lives. A lot of technology that we help develop helps humans discover things they haven't before. This desire to gain a deeper understanding is a great quality in humans. So, even if I decide that I don't want to go back to the Moon, people still will because it's in the human spirit.
P&C: What are your thoughts on manned versus unmanned space travel?
Bean: Well, man always has something to do with it. The question is, do you want him sitting in a control room in California running a robot on Mars, or do you want to send the man to Mars and let him work there? The way we have approached it at NASA — a way that appeals to me — is you send the robot first, use it to learn as much as possible, and then you send humans to discover what the robot missed.
P&C: What were you like as a kid?
Bean: When I was young — around 10 years old — I wanted to be an airplane pilot. They didn't have space travel in those days, or astronauts. I had never been in an airplane, but I had seen them in movies and I remember thinking that it looked like fun, and that I could do it. With that goal in mind, I focused on math and science classes in high school and aeronautical engineering at the University of Texas. After I graduated, I was commissioned in the Navy, and I went off to flight training. I was busy being a pilot when, all of a sudden, the space program came along. Until that time, I didn't even know people could go to space. But, after seeing Alan Shepard on TV and thinking that he was having more fun than me, I decided to become an astronaut. I was lucky enough to have all the background, because all the astronauts I read about came from military pilot backgrounds. The first time I applied to become an astronaut, I was not accepted. It broke my heart. However, I realized that I had to decide if I was just going to pout, or if I was going to make myself better qualified and see if I could get another chance. So then I started studying things that would make me a better candidate. A year later, they gave it to me. I learned that if you want to be good at something, you better buckle down and work hard towards that goal. It's up to you. I said I was going to keep trying, even if it took a hundred times. And that's what I did.