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Orion on parachutes
Al Worden flew to the Moon, but didn’t set foot on it, as command module pilot of the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. (credit: NASA)

From Michigan to the Moon

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Renowned 18th century British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook wrote in his journals that “Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” One cannot deny that Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific and Australia was historic, and almost exactly 200 years later, the crew of Apollo 15 set off on a momentous mission of their own to the Moon.

“There wasn’t such a thing as an astronaut when I was a kid. There were television shows that had ‘spacey’ type themes like ‘Buck Rogers,’ but that was it,” he recalled.

Surely Cook would have deemed such a voyage impossible. And yet desire, drive, and of course some friendly competition made lunar exploration a reality, two centuries on from Cook’s expeditions on the HMS Endeavour. It was that ambition that Cook spoke of which led a young man from Jackson, Michigan, to an eventual flight around the Moon as part of that Apollo 15 crew. Al Worden spent three days alone orbiting our lifeless neighbor while his two crewmates explored an area of Mare Imbrium (the Sea of Rains), 28 degrees north of the lunar equator, on the surface below. The name of the Apollo cmmand module he piloted during that time was of course Endeavour, in honor of their aforementioned fellow explorer who had sailed very different seas in a time long before Saturn V rockets and lunar modules.

Growing up in 1930s America, Worden could never have imagined the paths he would take, and the places he would see, in his own lifetime. “There wasn’t such a thing as an astronaut when I was a kid. There were television shows that had ‘spacey’ type themes like ‘Buck Rogers,’ but that was it,” he recalled. Worden earned a scholarship to Princeton University, but a scholastic records check found he hadn’t studied Latin and so that opportunity was taken away from him.

An appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, was the next definitive port of call after a successful Civil Service competitive examination. Graduating from West Point in 1955 with a Bachelor of Military Science degree, Worden’s career from then on went down a route now accepted as the norm for an Apollo-era astronaut. “It was only in the early 60s that I realized we actually had a space program and that it might be something worth looking into.”

Having chosen the Air Force after graduation from West Point, Worden went on to receive flight training at various bases in Texas and Florida. A Master’s degree in Astronautical/Aeronautical Engineering with Instrumentation Engineering at the University of Michigan in 1963 preceded stints as a test pilot at the Empire Test Pilot’s School (then situated in Farnborough, England) and then as an instructor at the Aerospace Research Pilot’s School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Worden remembers his time flying in England particularly fondly, having decided to live with his family in a bungalow five miles south of Aldershot as opposed to staying holed up in an American base.

Selected as one of nineteen members of NASA’s fifth group of pioneering astronauts in 1966, Worden was eventually assigned as the backup Command Module Pilot (CMP) on Apollo 12. The prime CMP that eventually flew on that mission was Dick Gordon, and the constant training together meant a lifelong friendship was formed. “Dick was my buddy,” he said. “We flew together and worked together for a year and a half when he was training for Apollo 12 and I was his backup. We just went everywhere together. We worked really hard but it was also a lot of fun.”

Worden was selected, along with fellow distinguished Air Force pilots Dave Scott (Commander) and Jim Irwin (Lunar Module Pilot), to form the crew of Apollo 15, the fourth human lunar landing, which launched on July 26, 1971. When asked if he would have traded his mission for any others, Worden said, “Well, maybe Apollo 11, that would’ve been nice. But no, I think we had the best mission of them all. We did the most science and concentrated on that.” He points out that “there were a lot of firsts on our flight that made it a really great flight to be on.” He’s right: Apollo 15 was the first of three “J” missions that concentrated more on science than any previous flights. The mission included the first Scientific Instrument Module (SIM) bay flown and operated on an Apollo flight, the longest lunar surface stay time (Scott and Irwin’s lunar module Falcon remained on the surface for almost 67 hours), the first use of the lunar roving vehicle to travel further on the Moon’s surface than ever before, as well as the first sub-satellite launched in lunar orbit.

Worden asserts, however, that the water training wasn’t much of a help for spacewalk training. “The underwater training was useless,” he said.

On the return trip to Earth, Worden himself completed an historic first spacewalk in deep space. During his 38 minutes outside Endeavour, he retrieved film cassettes from the SIM bay and observed the general condition of equipment situated there. As the first person to view the Earth and the Moon from deep space outside a spacecraft, it was a personal mission highlight for Worden. “I’d watched the Earthrise 75 times before that so that was an old thing by then, but to see the Earth and the Moon at the same time like that was kind of unique.”

Training for that spacewalk was a key element of Worden’s mission preparation, with underwater training and parabolic zero-g flights in the aptly named “Vomit Comet” KC-135 aircraft. Worden asserts, however, that the water training wasn’t much of a help. “The underwater training was useless,” he said. “The problem is you have to get into your spacesuit and then get into the water and get neutrally buoyant. Everything you work with in the water has to be neutrally buoyant and that’s a far different thing than working with the same mass in space.” He does note, however, that “The water tank is okay for procedures, but to get a real view of what it is like in space it’s not the right thing. The zero-g airplane is the way to go.”

One key aspect of training for Apollo 15 was geology, and it is said that all of the “J” mission astronauts (Apollos 15, 16, and 17) had the equivalent of a Master’s degree in geology by the time they each flew. While Scott and Irwin were taught field geology, Worden became completely immersed in learning how to be an aerial lunar geologist. His teacher was Farouk El-Baz, an Egyptian-American scientist who would take Worden on flights above places of geologic interest so he could practice describing what he saw. El-Baz is still a big name in his homeland, Worden points out. “Farouk was trained as a petroleum geologist. But what he has really done is remote-sensing geology and his big thing right now is ground-penetrating radar. He has found several Egyptian tombs and artifacts and they’ve been excavating those things. He’s kind of a hero over there.”

The flights to the Moon between 1968 and 1972 affected each of the astronauts in very different ways. When asked if the Apollo 15 mission changed him at all, Worden said, “Only from the standpoint of what I could see when I was there that I couldn’t see here.” He adds that “…you see how many stars there are out there and you realize that the Earth is a finite object. Five billion years from now there won’t be an Earth—it may occur sooner than that, who knows?”

Worden seems convinced that it is only a matter of time before humans take the next giant leap in human space exploration. “My opinion is that we are genetically driven to go into space. We might take a thirty-year slow walk, a hiatus, or whatever you want to call it, but we’re eventually going to get back to it and we’re eventually going to go on and do these things that we’re talking about.”

Many of the Apollo astronauts seem somewhat divided on the matter of whether we should go back to the Moon before sending people on to Mars. Worden is certain, though, that a return to the Moon is a waste of time. “There’s one thing that it would be very nice to go back to the Moon for. If we could put a big observatory on the surface of the backside of the Moon, that would be absolutely unbelievable. Other than that the Moon is no good to us for anything.” Even in terms of a launch platform to Mars, the Florida resident believes the International Space Station (ISS) would be a much wiser option than the lunar surface.

“Commercial flights into low-Earth orbit or to the ISS is a good thing because it takes the pressure off NASA to do that.”

In September, NASA announced that it had chosen Boeing and SpaceX as the two companies that will fly astronauts on commercially-developed vehicles to the ISS, starting as soon as 2017. The $4.2 billion awarded to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX will eventually end the American reliance on the Russian Soyuz vehicles to get its astronauts into orbit. Worden feels that for any human spaceflight venture to work, “You’ve got to have a vision and you’ve got to have a focus if you’re going to bring people together and do things efficiently.”

Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon capsules are both set to be reusable vehicles that will carry at least four crewmembers and limited cargo to the ISS, as well as act as an emergency lifeboat by remaining docked to the station for up to 180 days. SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk sees the announcement as “a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species.” Worden thinks space travel is being privatized because commercial companies will do it “more efficiently” than government. When asked whether the move is a long-term solution or just a mere stopgap measure, he said, “I think it’s a long-term thing. Commercial flights into low-Earth orbit or to the ISS is a good thing because it takes the pressure off NASA to do that.”

In terms of whether we’ll ever find any other living species in the universe, Worden seems convinced. “If you talk about whether there is intelligent life out there, the answer is absolutely, resoundingly yes. It’s deductive reasoning really.” With 300 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone, it is hard to argue with him.

Worden’s autobiography, Falling to Earth, was released in 2011 and made it to the top 12 of the Los Angeles Times Bestseller list (see “Review: Falling to Earth”, The Space Review, August 8, 2011). Written with Francis French, the Manchester-born space historian, author, and current Director of Education at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, the book is a fascinating insight into the thoughts and experiences of an Apollo astronaut.

Worden’s recent visit to the Irish west coast was organized by Limerick native Paul Ryan. A hugely successful few days included a lecture at Limerick IT on September 16, before concluding with a dinner event at the Pavilion in the University of Limerick the following day.

The 82-year-old has no intention of slowing down his schedule just yet: “I enjoy doing this, I enjoy talking to people. It keeps my feet on the ground.” Having flown a half-million-mile round trip to the Moon more than 43 years ago, terra firma must feel that bit more precious. Al Worden: the boy from Michigan who took a trip to the Moon.