Al Worden, the Poet of Apollo 15

For this moon voyager, technical debriefings weren’t fulfilling enough.

Al Worden during a countdown demonstration in preparation for his Apollo 15 flight in 1971. (NASA)
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In his 1974 memoir Carrying the Fire, Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins wryly observed that he and his crewmates “weren’t trained to emote, we were trained to repress emotions.” If NASA had wanted emotional displays, he wrote, “they should have put together an Apollo crew of a philosopher, a priest, and a poet…Of course, they wouldn’t get them back to have the press conference.” The implication being that the astronauts’ “softer” side would have somehow interfered with the hard-headed work of a moon flight.

Maybe so. But that doesn’t mean the Apollo astronauts were soulless robots—least of all Collins himself, who turned out to be a pretty eloquent and sensitive writer.

And it certainly wasn’t true of Apollo 15’s Al Worden, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 88. Worden was the Mike Collins of that fourth lunar landing mission, circling the moon in the command module while Dave Scott and Jim Irwin explored the Hadley-Appenine region below.

When they got back to Earth, like all the Apollo crews, Scott, Irwin, and Worden sat for days of technical debriefing, telling their story in minute detail to the NASA managers and engineers who had planned their voyage. Worden began to get fidgety. As he recounted in his 2011 book Falling to Earth:

Even though I talked about the flight every day at work, the mission began to take on an air of unreality. It was as if I had…become totally immersed in a movie, forgetting there was another world out there. Now the movie was over, and I was out on the street as cars and people went by, back in the real world again….

I would sit in my living room at night, wide awake. It was quiet and peaceful, but my brain still went a mile a minute. So I grabbed some old coffee-stained legal pad and began to write down my vivid impressions of our flight. Unlike the technical debriefing, I relived the flight in emotions and remembered images. The words slowed freely and easily, and after letting them sit to one side for a while, I realized I had written something that might best be described as poetry.

I didn't do anything with those papers for years. But when I mentioned them to some friends in a Houston poetry group, they grew excited about the first poems written by someone who had traveled to the moon. They said I should publish them. I left the poems in a drawer for a few more years, but eventually I did publish them, in a volume called Hello Earth: Greetings From Endeavour.

The poems are about as good as you might expect from a pilot. I hope I did a better job than a poet would if asked to fly a jet with no training. And on those long nights when I couldn't sleep, the writing helped me. It was my own personal, emotional debriefing.

An Air Force test pilot before joining NASA, Worden flew just that one spaceflight, but it included one very memorable spacewalk. He was the first person to venture outside an Apollo spacecraft (to retrieve a film canister) when it was halfway back from the moon. Turning his head in deepest, darkest space, he could see Earth in one direction and the moon in the other. The Guinness Book of Records once listed him as the “most isolated human being,” although Worden later told an interviewer he wasn’t sure exactly how they came up with that, since other astronauts did the same thing on Apollo 16 and 17.

His poem “Floating” captures the moment:

I float outside to look around

Slowly, soundlessly,

And my security cord lengthens.

Poised in flight

Cloudy frail earth sails on;

My world Endeavour

Is bathed in light of a burning sun

Trapped by lunar day on the other side—

Nowhere is my vantage point

Between the earth and moon.

Here was one person’s artistic response to a nearly unfathomable experience, a journey shared by only a very few of the 100 billion humans who have ever lived. It is, in the words of Apollo historian Andrew Chaikin, “the poetry of a man caught in the lingering pull of another world.”

Here’s Worden reading one of his poems at the San Diego Air and Space Museum in 2016:

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