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
(Page 3 of 3)
After 11 days in space, I was accustomed to weightlessness. With one hand on a handrail, I could turn my body with my wrist. The SIM bay was slightly to the left of the hatch, so I first needed to swing across the face of Endeavour. I let my legs float up, swung around, and worked my way down the side of the spacecraft, hand over hand, never using my feet.
I floated over the mapping camera, then rotated myself on the handrail, placing my feet in special restraints. I hadn’t really had a sense of where I was until this moment. Standing upright on the side of the spacecraft, attached only by my feet and the umbilical that loosely snaked back to the spacecraft hatch, I had a fleeting sense of being deep under the ocean, in the dark, next to an enormous white whale. The sun was at a low angle behind me, so every bump on the outside of the service module cast a deep shadow. I didn’t dare look toward the sun, knowing it would be blindingly bright. In the other direction, and all around me, there was—nothing. It’s a sensation impossible to experience unless you float tens of thousands of miles from the nearest planet. This wasn’t deep dark water, or night sky, or any other wide open space that I could comprehend. The blackness defied understanding, because it stretched away from me for billions of miles.
But there wasn’t time to ponder it too much. I had work to do. I pulled the cover off the panoramic camera, released the film cassette, and tethered myself to it. Jim waited for me at the hatch. “Would you like to get hold of it?” I asked with a laugh as I passed him the film. Jim tethered it inside and released the tether attaching me to it. While Dave stowed the panoramic camera film deeper in the cabin, I floated back down the side of the spacecraft. “Beautiful job, Al baby!” Karl Henize radioed from Earth. “Remember, there is no hurry up there at all.”
“Roger, Karl,” I replied as I grabbed the handrail again. “I’m enjoying it!”
I floated back down the SIM bay, much faster this time. It was time to remove the mapping camera film cassette and bring that back inside. This time the cover didn’t cooperate, and I had to twist and pull hard three or four times before it came away. I pulled the mapping camera film out and floated it back over to Jim, who grabbed the film and unhooked the tether attaching it to me. As we did this, I saw one of the most amazing sights of my life. Jim was perfectly framed by the enormous moon right behind him. It looked as big as the spacecraft, and was dramatically lit by the sun. It could have been the most famous photo in the space program, if I’d been allowed to take a camera out of the spacecraft.
I’d argued for carrying one on my EVA, but the mission planners had worried I’d be busy enough. Now I really wished I’d had one. Well, if I didn’t have a camera, I could at least take a look at where I was. After all, 12 people would walk on the moon during Apollo, but only three would make a deep-space EVA. I would forever be the first, and to this day I hold the record for floating in space farther away from Earth than any other human.
I realized I had a unique viewpoint: I could see the entire moon if I looked in one direction. Turning my head, I could see the entire Earth. The perspective is impossible to have on Earth or on the moon. I had to be far enough away from both.
It was time to float back inside.
Right away, I wished I had spent more time out there just looking around. We had plenty of time. Those film canisters with their priceless images were now safely inside the spacecraft. But I could have soaked in the scene a little more, just for myself.
If I couldn’t take photos outside myself—and Jim had not taken any stills of me either—I knew that at least the 16-mm movie camera should have picked up some spectacular images. But I was wrong. That camera, we learned later, had jammed. It had captured only one frame, showing me floating away.
After retiring from NASA, Al Worden worked in private industry before becoming chair of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Francis French is director of education at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.