Faithful readers of this blog (and I know you’re out there!) no doubt are aware of my lifelong interest in space and the manned space program. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the chance to hear two speakers with remarkable, albeit very different, contributions to the realm. As it happens, the presentations were very different as well.
First, on March 21, former NASA astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon during Apollo 12 mission who eventually retired to pursue his interest in painting, spoke at Rice University to end the academic year’s Space Frontiers Lecture Series. Then, on March 26, world-renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking, known as much for his incredible life story as for his theoretical contributions, “spoke” at Jesse Jones Hall as part of the nonprofit Brilliant Lecture Series. (More on that later.)
I had originally planned to write separate posts on each event. But the vagaries of my day job (including a three-day out-of-town trip in between) actually allow me time to compare and contrast the two events.
First up, I had been very excited to hear Bean, the first time I’d seen one of the Apollo moon-walkers in person. (I don’t count the time in the late ’90s that I was at a ballgame in the Astrodome at the same time as the late Neil Armstrong.) Aside from stories I’d read about his artwork, however, I didn’t know that much about him.
Dr. Mike Massino, a current NASA astronaut and director of the Rice Space Institute, effusively praised Bean for a talk he gave when Massino was a newly named astronaut in the 1990s. In his speech, the ebullient spaceman-turned-artist did not disappoint.
Now 81, Bean got the evening off to a typically humorous and self-effacing start: “Hello, fellow Earthlings. Hello, fellow human beings.” That combination of humor, warmth and, as it turns out, humility was the hallmark of a talk in which Bean, who acknowledged not being the best astronaut of his class, showed himself to be a true class act.
Bean’s presentation was illustrated with vintage photographs and film clips of the Apollo era, including one of him and his Apollo 12 crewmates, in full space regalia, posing with their matching gold Corvettes.
He described what might have been his greatest lesson in leadership — when he questioned the contribution of another crewmember, Richard Gordon, to his commander, Charles “Pete” Conrad.
Conrad immediately turned the tables on Bean, telling he didn’t know the first thing about being a team member. Embarassed and ashamed, Bean said, he asked his boss what that was. Conrad told Bean he had to get to know as many of the members of the NASA team he could and find something to admire about them. Bean said that lesson stuck, and he’s carried it through to this very day.
Later, he described his move into the full-time world of painting. His work, of course, is primarily concerned with space travel, especially the Apollo era (Bean also commanded a long-duration mission aboard the Skylab space station.) Among the many paintings he exhibited during the speech was one of the Apollo 12 crew, all seen in spacesuits on the Moon. However, that scene isn’t real — Gordon, whom he’d earlier doubted, was flying the command module in orbit around the moon as Conrad and Bean were walking the lunar surface. But Bean chose to put Gordon front and center, to illustrate their bond as a team.
Bean concluded by telling the audience what he said was the greatest lesson he’d ever learned: that each of us is limited only by the limitations we place on ourselves.
If anyone exemplifies that lesson, it is Stephen Hawking, the Einstein-level physicist and cosmologist who was struck with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) (also called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease) before he’d completed his doctorate in England and who has spent almost all of adult life in a wheelchair, and for decades has been able to communicate only through electronic means.
If I was excited to see Bean, I was beyond thrilled to have the almost-unheard-of chance to see Hawking, author of the seminal popular science book “A Brief History of Time,” at the ornate Jones Hall in downtown Houston. The Brilliant Lecture Series has played host to a range of luminaries, but Hawking no doubt most deserves the honorific.
But just a week before he was to have appeared onstage, ticket holders learned that because of unspecified medical reasons, Hawking’s doctors said he should not make the transatlantic flight to Texas. Instead, he would present his talk through a special filmed version that would be shown to the audience. (Later, the host said that it took Hawking six hours to film the shots that would make up the approximately 70-minute talk.)
To be sure, I was disappointed. And truthfully, until the very afternoon of the event, I was considering asking for a refund (there was some question as to whether the organizers would actually provide a full refund or simply a credit for a future event). From the numerous empty seats, it appears many others chose to do just that.
It was kind of odd, sitting in the top balcony of a symphony hall, watching what was essentially a movie of a man, all but immobile, speaking with an electronically produced voice.
But in the talk, fittingly called “My Brief History” Hawking proved himself to be just as charming and elucidating as Bean, but in a quite unique manner.
In long shots of Hawking, sometimes managing the briefest of smiles, he recounted his wartime childhood (he was away when a German bomb struck very near his home), the disappointments of his physician father who felt he’d been passed over in his career because he didn’t fit in socially, and his own contempt for working hard academically (since that was considered unseemly), and the depression he fell into when first being diagnosed in his early 20s.
So certain that he would die soon (since that was what the medical community believed), Hawking very nearly did not complete his education. But, he said, he began to improve just long enough that he did so, and began to embark on his remarkable career, in which he’s made hugely significant contributions to the study of black holes and quantum theory (including something called M Theory, of which I’d never really known before.)
He also wrote the first of his famous popular books, “A Brief History of Time,” which later was the basis of a documentary, a fully illustrated version and a later, “Briefer” version. Hawking admitted he never expected it to become the publishing phenomenon, and even joked that many of the people who purchased it may not have read it all the way through. But at least, he said, they gained a picture of just how fascinating the study of physics and the universe is.
In the end, Hawking concluded with a message very similar to Bean’s: “Always look at the stars, and not at your feet.”
NOTE: A video of Bean’s speech can be seen here.
Copyright © 2013 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.