Circling the Moon
In a new autobiography, an Apollo 15 pilot tells what it was like to fly solo.
- By Al Worden With Francis French
- Air & Space magazine, July 2011
Eric Long/ NASM
The fourth mission to land men on the moon, Apollo 15 was also the first of Apollo’s extended science missions. After a smooth journey, which began on July 26, 1971, commander Dave Scott and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin stayed on the moon for 66 hours, longer than the two previous lunar landings combined. While Scott and Irwin explored the terrain with Apollo’s first lunar rover, command module pilot Al Worden, orbiting alone in the spacecraft Endeavour, photographed the moon and operated scientific instruments studying its surface. NASA’s then-administrator James Fletcher compared Apollo 15’s scientific return with discoveries Charles Darwin made on his five-year around-the-world voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, but the mission was marred by its crew’s bad judgment: The three men had flown postal covers to the moon, signed them, and sold them to a German stamp dealer. After the business arrangement was discovered, NASA management, embarrassed by the scrutiny the agency was receiving, did not fly the men in space again. In his new book, Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon, Al Worden recalls the pain of the scandal and recounts the unprecedented adventure of his mission. In this excerpt, Worden writes about his rendezvous with Scott and Irwin after three days of orbital solitude and describes making the first extravehicular activity—EVA—beyond Earth orbit.
On my last morning alone around the moon, I woke to a breezy blast of mariachi trumpets. With the serene lunar surface gliding by below me, Herb Alpert’s “Tijuana Taxi” was about the strangest music mission control could pipe up over the radio. But still, it got me awake.
On the lunar surface, Dave and Jim suited up for their final moonwalk before they began preparations to lift off and rejoin me. We all had a busy day ahead. Ed Mitchell, the lunar module expert, was back as CapCom for this critical time. He read up a blizzard of numbers to me, telling me where and when I would need to rendezvous with my moving target.
Later in the day, mission control gave Dave clearance to lift off from the moon. On Hadley plain, Falcon’s engine lit, hurling the spacecraft upward. It quickly pitched over, and zipped along the rille on the curving path needed to reach me.
As Dave and Jim rose in the Falcon, I turned on the cassette player. We were an all-Air Force crew, so I figured it would be fun to play the U.S. Air Force anthem to mission control to provide a stirring background. Bad move. My radio signal was heard not only on Earth: For some reason, mission control also patched it through to the Falcon. Dave and Jim, intently focused on their checklists, now had distracting music in their ears. The ground didn’t tell me; perhaps they didn’t realize what they had done themselves until later.
Had something gone wrong with Falcon at that moment, the music could have been a dangerous diversion. Fortunately, everything went according to plan, and Dave and Jim zipped into an orbit below and behind me. I’d trained extensively to catch them if Falcon lurched into some other, wilder orbit. But I never needed to. I soon had a good radar lock on them. Guided by Ed Mitchell back on Earth, Dave and I flew our spacecraft ever closer, mirroring each other’s moves. “You got your lights on, Jim?” I radioed, watching for Falcon’s flashing tracking light.
I looked through the sextant and the telescope to try to find them, but sunlight in the scopes made it hard to see anything. Finally, in the corner of my eye, I spotted a flash of light in the telescope. I manually drove the instruments over to that point, and there it was: a very bright light. “I’ve got your lights now, Dave,” I told them.
As Falcon steadily rose to meet me, Dave and Jim gave Endeavour an extensive look-over, while I photographed them in turn. Falcon had left its descent stage on the surface of the moon and was now much smaller than when I had last seen it. Falcon was so light, a pulse of its thrusters rattled the lunar module around. So it was easier for me to dock using Endeavour. I slowly slid toward them, so gently that we barely touched. Then, with a touch of my thrusters, I pushed forward into a hard dock.
The rendezvous and docking had been fast—and perfect. “Good show, Endeavour,” Dave radioed to me. “Welcome home,” I replied. That might seem like an odd choice of words—after all, we were still a quarter of a million miles from Earth. But Endeavour had become my home, and Dave and Jim were returning from a great adventure.
I’d kept our home clean and tidy for them. But now, as I opened the hatches between the spacecraft, I saw two grimy faces. Their spacesuits were dirty, and I could smell the moondust. It was a new, peculiar odor—dry and gunpowdery. I kept the hatch closed as much as possible while we began to transfer equipment, hoping the floating dust would not spread. I was mostly successful, but the creep of dust was unavoidable. Dave and Jim floated long sample tubes of lunar dirt and boxes of moonrocks through the hatch, which I stowed inside Endeavour under the couches.
While busily running scientific experiments, I also stored Falcon’s flight plans and checklists, food, film magazines full of priceless photos, and—less priceless to me—Dave and Jim’s used urine and fecal bags. Of all the things to return from the lunar surface, did we really need their crap?
Finally, Dave and Jim floated into Endeavour. I was elated to see them. But Dave didn’t look happy. In fact, while Jim looked away sheepishly, Dave began to loudly berate me about the distracting tune piped into the Falcon during liftoff. Didn’t I know I had jeopardized the whole mission, he thundered, by playing that darn music?
This wasn’t the reunion I had expected. I could only apologize and explain that I had only radioed it to Houston, with no clue they would patch it back to the Falcon. My explanation seemed to satisfy Dave for the moment. I guess he eventually forgave me, because months later at an awards ceremony with the Air Force Association, Dave bragged about playing the tune.
There wasn’t time for me or Dave to dwell on the argument. We had too much to do. Behind in the timeline, we hustled to close the hatches. On the first attempt, the spacecraft hatch did not seal correctly, possibly due to some lunar dust. After more time-consuming checks, we finally seemed to have the problem solved, and Dave and Jim could remove their helmets and gloves. They had started their day with a demanding moonwalk, and they hadn’t eaten for eight hours. They were ready to stop for a while and grab some food.