Astronaut Alan Bean, 4th human to walk on moon, has died, NASA announces

HOUSTON – Astronaut Alan Bean died Saturday after becoming ill two weeks earlier, NASA announced Saturday. 

Bean died at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston at the age of 86. 

“Alan was the strongest and kindest man I ever knew. He was the love of my life and I miss him dearly,” said Leslie Bean, Alan Bean’s wife of 40 years. “A native Texan, Alan died peacefully in Houston surrounded by those who loved him.”

NASA said Bean was one of the third group of astronauts named by NASA in October 1963. He served as a backup astronaut for the Gemini 10 and Apollo 9 missions.

"For someone in my profession who had the interest I had ... it was wonderful; it was like you won the lottery or even better," said Bean in an interview with NASA decades after Apollo 12.

A test pilot in the U.S. Navy, Bean was one of 14 trainees selected by NASA for its third group of astronauts in October 1963. He flew twice into space, first as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12, the second moon landing mission, in November 1969, and then as commander of the second crewed flight to the United States' first space station, Skylab, in July 1973.

"Alan and I have been best friends for 55 years - ever since the day we became astronauts," said Walt Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7. "When I became head of the Skylab branch of the Astronaut Office, we worked together and Alan eventually commanded the second Skylab mission."

"We have never lived more than a couple of miles apart, even after we left NASA. And for years, Alan and I never missed a month where we did not have a cheeseburger together at Miller's Café in Houston. We are accustomed to losing friends in our business but this is a tough one," Cunningham said.

At Miller's Cafe near the Spacecenter, Robert Force, Bean's former NASA instructor, sat down with KPRC.

"We had a lot of hours pretend landing on the moon, not landing on the moon, crashing on the moon," Force said.

Force was his lunar module simulator instructor at the time, training all the astronauts looking to land on the moon.

"These training exercises were 'what if's' -- What are you going to do if this fails ... Of all the astronauts I trained, he was the easiest to get along with."

Bean went on to become the commander of Skylab Mission II, breaking a world record with a 59-day flight, traversing 24.4 million miles.

It was an experience that Bean would dedicate the rest of his life to sharing. In his retired life, he became an artist, painting scenes of his work and his colleagues on the moon.

"I've seen sights that no artist in history has ever seen. If I could paint that well enough, maybe I could do something in the art world," Bean said in a NASA interview.

Including bits of moon dust in his artwork, he hoped his paintings would help share his experiences forever. 

Space enthusiast Mike Curry met Bean several times and even had dinner with him.

"When I bought his book, and he signed it, it said, 'Mike Curry -- reach for the stars!' and he had a big old star on it. And I will cherish that book," Curry said.