Space Sunday: Al Worden remembered

Al Worden, Apollo 15, July 1971. Credit: NASA

The years 2019 through 2022 mark the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo lunar landings of the 1960s. At a time when those ambitious, pioneering mission, undertaken at what was still the early dawn of human space flight, serve as a background against the current US Artemis endeavour, it is sad to report on the passing of another of one of the 24 men who flew to the Moon as a part of those trailblazing missions has passed away.

Alfred Merrill “Al” Worden was one of those Apollo pioneers who is perhaps less well-known than others, as he was one of Command Module Pilots. These were the mean who remained in lunar orbit piloting the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) whilst their fellow crew members made the actual descent and landing on the Moon, and so – with perhaps the exceptions of Michael Collins (Apollo 11) and John Leonard (“Jack”) Swigert Jr. (Apollo13) – did not garner the same degree of media attention during their missions and their surface exploring crew mates.

Worden’s lunar flight aboard Apollo 15 (July 26th, 1971 through August 7th, 1971) was his only flight into space, thanks to actions he and his fellow crew, David R. Scott and James Irwin, took before, during and after the mission which saw all three removed from active flight status for the remainder of their careers at NASA.

Born in 1932, in Jackson, Michigan, Worden was the second of six children and the oldest of the four boys born into a low-income farming family. A keen learner, he opted to try to continue his education beyond high school by obtaining an scholarship, initially to the University of Michigan. But unable to secure funding for more than a year, he turned his attention to the military in order to continue his learning. Applying to both United States Military Academy at West Point (US Army) and the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, he found himself accepted by both, and after some deliberation, opted to go to West Point, enrolling there in 1951.

Al Worden at an Apollo 11 50th anniversary event. Credit: NASA

Whilst he enjoyed the army discipline at West Point, Worden found himself being encouraged by instructors to pursue a career in the nascent United States Air Force (formed out of the United States Army Air Force in 1947). At that time, the USAF was so young as an independent branch of the US military, it did not have its own training academy, so Worden was able to take advantage of an arrangement that allowed West Point and Annapolis graduates to transfer to the USAF for training, regardless of any possible lack of experience in flying.

As it turned out, Worden proved to be a natural flyer, moving swiftly from the propeller-driven T34 trainer to the jet-powered Lockheed T33. On completing his Air Defense Command training, he was posted to the 95th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, based at  Andrews Air Force Base near Washington D.C. , where he mostly flew the USAF’s first supersonic, swept-wing fighter, the F-102 Delta Dagger. Staying with the squadron as a pilot and armaments officer through until May 1961, Worden applied for, and received, permission to study aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1963 with Master of Science degrees in astronautical/aeronautical engineering and instrumentation engineering.

Returning to flight service, Worden increased his logged flying time to over 4,000 hours, 2,500 of which was flying jets. During this time he graduated from both the Instrument Pilots Instructor School in the US, and the Empire Test Pilots’ School, UK, one of the most high-regarded test pilots schools in the world. He then served as an instructor at the Aerospace Research Pilots School, then attended the USAF’s advanced flight training school for experimental aircraft, as both a pilot and as an instructor.

In 1966, he joined NASA as a part of the 19-strong Group 5 astronaut intake, alongside of his eventual crew mate, (“Jim”) Irwin. In 1968, they were selected to be the Apollo 12 back-up under the command of veteran astronaut David R. Scott, one of the most experienced Apollo astronauts, whoo had already flown on Gemini 8 and, more particularly, Apollo 9, the proving flight for all of the Apollo hardware – Saturn V rocket, Apollo Command and Service Modules, and the Lunar Module.

Apollo 15 crew: David Scott (l), James Irwin (r) and Al Worden (c). Credit: NASA

The crew were appointed as the prime crew for Apollo 15 at the start of 1970. From the start, Scott, as the mission commander, was determined that they would by the crew that gathered the most scientific data on and about the Moon – spurred in on part back the Apollo 15 back-up crew included Harrison Schmitt, the only actual scientist to participate in a lunar flight (Apollo 17). A first reason for wanting to be the best science crew on Apollo was that thanks to NASA cancelling two of the planned missions, Apollo 15 was raised to a “J-mission”, becoming the first such mission to feature an enhanced Lunar Module, capable of carrying more to the surface of the Moon, including the now famous lunar rover vehicle.

The J mission status of the flight also meant that Worden would have far more to do in lunar orbit than previous CM pilots, as the service module for the mission was the first to include a dedicated Scientific Instrument Module (SIM) bay. This was an equipment bay shielded by a protective panel during launch (and jettisoned once en route to the Moon), and carrying a range of science equipment – a high-resolution contained a panoramic camera, a gamma ray spectrometer, a mapping camera, a laser altimeter and mass spectrometer, all of which Worden had to manage and monitor. In addition, the bay contained a sub-satellite he was tasked with deploying before Apollo 15 left lunar orbit to return to Earth, and designed to study the plasma, particle, and magnetic field environment of the Moon and map the lunar gravity field.

A shot of the Apollo 15 Command Module Endeavour and its Service Module, as seen by from the Lunar Module Falcon, showing the exposed SIM bay and instruments, the cover having been jettisoned en route to the Moon. Credit: NASA

Worden’s sojourn about the Command Module Endeavour began after the Lunar Module carrying Scott and Irwin detached from his vehicle on July 30th, 1971 at an attitude of just 10.7 km above the lunar surface. Following separation, Worden fired the main engine on the Service Module to raise his orbit to 120.8 km x 101.5 km in order to commence his science work.

Over the next 4 days, he worked steadily on his assigned science duties, actually exceeding in some of them. Among his activities, he used the spy satellite quality camera system in the SIM bay to capture 1,529 usable high-resolution images of the lunar surface, and also carried out a regime of exercises using a bungee cord for research into muscle behaviour in micro-gravity environments. These exercises were supposed to mirror similar exercises performed by Scott and Irwin under the greater influence of lunar gravity, so that comparative data could be obtained between them. However, Worden was so enthusiastic about his work, he completed twice the amount of exercise he was required to do!

During those days on his own, Worden gained a citation from Guinness World Records as “the most isolated human being”, because as times during his flights around the Moon he would by up to 3,597 km away from the Lunar Module Falcon and Scott and Irwin – further than any human being had been from anyone else up until that point in time.

After the mission and when asked if he ever felt alone during this time, he would always reply in the negative, saying it suited his jet fighter pilot mentality, and he particularly enjoyed his times on the far side of the Moon when he’d be totally out of contact with any living soul, and would have something special to look forward to.

Every time I came around the Moon I went to a window and watched the Earth rise and that was pretty unique.

The thing that was most interesting to me was taking photographs of very faint objects with a special camera that I had on board. These objects reflect sunlight, but it’s very, very weak and you can’t see it from [Earth]. There are several places between the Earth and the moon that are stable equilibrium points. And if that’s the case, there has to be a dust cloud there. I got pictures of that.

– Al Worden discussing his time alone as the Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot

Following the rendezvous with, and recovery of, the Lunar Module ascent stage, Worden had another record-setting duty to complete: whilst en-route back to Earth, he had to perform an EVA – extra-vehiclular activity -, leaving the Apollo Command Module to make his way back to the SIM bay of the service module to collect the 25 kg cassette of images he’d captured during his time orbiting the Moon.

Worden during his historic deep space EVA, the round drum of the film cassette hanging from his harness. Credit: NASA

The space walk was completed with Jim Irwin standing in the Command Module’s hatch ready to provide assistance if needed, a camera watching over his shoulder. At the time, Apollo 15 was approximately 317,000 km from Earth, marking Worden’s space walk has the first “deep space” EVA in history. As of 2020, it remains one of only three such EVAs, all performed during  the last three Apollo lunar missions.

Despite the overwhelming success of Apollo 15 and the achievements made – first J-class mission, first use of the SIM bay, first use of the lunar rover vehicle, etc., – following the astronaut’s return to Earth, the mission would become the subject of the controversy that would see Scott, Irwin and Worden grounded by NASA for the rest of their careers.

Prior to the flight – and against NASA policy – all three men entered into a financial arrangement with a West German stamp dealer to fly 400 postal covers to the surface of the Moon and back.

Postmarked on the day of the launch at the Kennedy Space Centre post office and smuggled onto the Command Module, the covers flew to the Moon and then to the lunar surface with Scott and Irwin. On their return to Earth, the three men managed to get 398 of the covers – two were accidentally destroyed – cancelled and date-stamped on the day of their splash down at the post office aboard the recovery ship, USS Okinawa. Once back in the USA, the astronauts annotated and signed them, before sending 100 to the dealer, Hermann Sieger, whilst splitting the rest between themselves. The arrangement was for Sieger to pay the three men $7,000 each (approximately US $45,196 in today’s terms), and then give them a percentage each of the 100 in his possession, which he sold to dealers at $1,500 a cover.