Authors: Al Worden
Copyright © 2011 by Alfred Worden and Francis French
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Published by Smithsonian Books
Editor: Lise Sajewski
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Worden, Al, 1932–
Falling to Earth : an Apollo 15 astronaut’s journey / Al Worden with Francis French. — 1st ed.
1. Worden, Al, 1932–2. Astronauts—United States—Biography. 3. Space flight to the moon—History. 4. Project Apollo (U.S.)—History. I. French, Francis. II. Title.
ore than anyone I know, Al Worden lives in the moment—in the here and now. It is hard for me to imagine him stopping to reflect long enough to write a book. But I also know that he has been holding in this story for quite a long time.
In this book, Al shares experiences that very few humans have ever had: flying alone on the back side of the moon cut off from all human contact, completely isolated, one of only twenty-four people to have made this journey. I was fortunate to have had that experience as well, and to have been a participant in a significant portion of Al’s life.
My time with NASA began with my selection in the third group of astronauts in 1963, a gratifying accomplishment after the bitter disappointment of not being selected in the second group. Al appeared on the scene in the fifth selection in 1966. Although his group may not have realized it at the time, they would play a major role in virtually all American spaceflights from early Apollo missions up to and including early space shuttle flights.
Al’s assignment to the support crew for Apollo 9 as a command module specialist and mine as part of the backup crew brought us together, and we continued to train together for the rest of my career at NASA.
During our assignment on Apollo 9, Al and I would spend many hours flying together in a T-38 jet between Houston and Downey, California. When arriving at Los Angeles airport, the two of us would check out our rental cars. We worked different schedules at Downey and needed separate cars. As soon as we left, the race was on—competition was the elixir of our lives. We would generally take different routes to the Tahitian Village motel in Downey. It was always nice to be the one at the check-in desk when the other drove up to the entrance. Of course, we
exceeded the speed limit on the way.
Another event that brought Al and me together was a baseball game. Morale was still low in Downey as a result of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 that killed three of our astronaut colleagues. Apollo 9 commander Jim McDivitt was searching for some way to improve relationships. A game between the crew and Downey workers was suggested.
The Downey workers, with their semipro players, prevailed, and a great time was had by all. Morale and the relationship between astronauts and workers improved.
The training period for Apollo 9 was long. With the redesign of the Apollo command module well under way, the crew participated in a tremendous amount of testing. There were many long hours, and a lot of time away spent from home. Al and I worked closely during this period with Dave Scott, the prime command module pilot, to develop specific crew procedures and checklists. Al’s contributions were invaluable, relieving Dave and me to participate in mission-specific training and simulations. Apollo 9 finally flew in March 1969 and was a
On April 10, 1969 NASA announced the crews of Apollo 12. I was named on the prime crew, along with Pete Conrad and Alan Bean. To my delight, Al Worden was named as my backup. Al was a tremendous help to me during training. Many procedures for working around the moon still had to be developed. We worked together in simulations to develop procedures and checklists for operations in lunar orbit such as mapping, engine burns, and rendezvous. I felt that part of my responsibility was to ensure that Al could fly on Apollo 12 in my place. However, we both knew that this was
going to happen. I was going to fly my mission!
I flew to the moon on Apollo 12 in November of 1969. At the conclusion of our postflight celebratory world tour, in the spring of 1970, the Apollo 15 crews were announced, and I was named as backup commander. This assignment gave me my own crew and, I hoped, a later flight back to the moon. But more importantly for me was a chance to work with Al for a third time. This assignment, however, meant that Al and I would not be working as closely as we had in the past, since I was the backup for his commander, Dave Scott. Al had supported me up to and during my amazing adventure to the moon. Now he had his own mission, and busied himself to be well prepared for his extraordinary journey.
As much as Al and I worked together, Dave Scott and I had also developed a close relationship. We had been selected in the same astronaut group and had shared many assignments. I backed him up on Gemini 8 and Apollo 9, then he became the backup commander for Apollo 12, and I in turn became his backup commander for Apollo 15. Assignments together on a total of four crews is probably a record. I wonder how either one of us stood the experience—that’s more than enough togetherness.
I know that Al was very happy when he was assigned to Dave’s crew. Dave’s reputation had been one of the best, and I am sure their backgrounds as West Point graduates—duty, honor, country—provided a strong bond for them.
Apollo 15 became known as perhaps the best of the Apollo program. For Al, in lunar orbit, it included a new bay in the service module housing scientific instruments used to study the lunar surface. He was responsible for operating the experiments for three days around the moon by himself and then performing an EVA, also known as a spacewalk, to retrieve the scientific data cassettes. The EVA took place in deep space, some two hundred thousand miles from Earth. Al completed it in just under forty minutes, a tribute to his training.
After my time as Apollo 15 backup commander, I had no more crew assignments for the first time since 1965, a stretch of more than six years. After working on plans for the space shuttle until January 1972, I retired from NASA and the navy. Soon afterward, I learned that the Apollo 15 crew was in some kind of trouble regarding postal covers. It was an enormous shock to me when three close friends were pulled into a national scandal that sent shockwaves through our tight-knit astronaut fraternity.
I was disturbed by the revelations and concerned about the impact it would have on them. I generally refrain from discussing the event, even today. However, in searching my memory of my work on Apollo 15, I know that I was totally unaware of any unapproved postal covers flown on Apollo 15. I am learning details, from Al’s perspective, of this event for the first time.
The episode had a deleterious effect on Dave’s and Al’s future careers with NASA. It may have diminished their character for a short period of time, but it can never detract from the outstanding work they accomplished on Apollo 15.
I now realize that Al has been holding back the full details of what happened to him almost four decades ago. It has been suggested that the West Point honor code, still part of his character, has encouraged him to finally write this frank and honest account of all the events of Apollo 15. Now his story is out, and I hope he’ll find a peace he has not known for a long time.
After serving some time in private industry, Al has returned to the activity he loves—giving to others through his endeavors. As chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation he is responsible for the distribution of numerous scholarships to deserving college students around the country, helping America remain a world leader in many fields of science and technology. I’m sure that one of those students will lead something just as important as the Apollo program one day, and that achievement will be thanks to Al’s tireless efforts.
With this book you will experience one of humankind’s greatest adventures. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Capt. Dick Gordon, USN (Ret.)
Pilot, Gemini 11
Command Module Pilot, Apollo 12
Backup Commander, Apollo 15
t was the worst day of my life.
I’d had low points before. A failed marriage. Friends dead in car wrecks, aircraft, and spacecraft. This day was almost worse than death. Everything I had worked toward over a lifetime of service was ruined, and I was all alone.
Just a few months before, heads of state had honored me. Congress asked me to address them. I was called a hero. Now I was clearing out my rented apartment, loading boxes into a trailer, and preparing to leave Houston forever. I’d been fired in disgrace and frozen out by my colleagues. I had just lost everything: my career, and the respect and trust of those for whom I would have given my life.