Circling the Moon

In a new autobiography, an Apollo 15 pilot tells what it was like to fly solo.

(Eric Long/ NASM)
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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.

Then it was finally time to undock from Falcon. “It’s away clean, Houston,” I reported as the lunar module separated with a bang. The separation had taken longer than planned, so instead of our scheduled rest break, we jumped back into our chores.

Jim and Dave would have worked until they dropped, they were so dedicated to the mission. “We’re still trying to get cleaned up in here and get suits put away and all that sort of stuff,” I told the ground. “It’s awfully cramped quarters, and there’s an awful lot of stuff to move around.” The spacecraft seemed very different now that three of us were crammed in again. “I kind of liked it here by myself,” I added wistfully.

By the time we finished everything on the checklist, we were exhausted. We slept deeply for nine hours. The next morning, we all felt much better. With the three of us scrambling to accomplish tasks, my day seemed much more complicated. I was happy to have Dave and Jim back alive, but I began to miss working alone, when we didn’t all have overlapping tasks.

I had enjoyed my time in orbit. There was so much to see that I never grew bored. The sunlit part of the moon shifted as the days went by, so there were always new places to view. I could have happily spent a few more days there—the same feeling I get at the end of a great vacation. But it was time to go home.

Two days after Dave and Jim had rejoined me in Endeavour, I fired the main engine to propel us away from the moon. I could feel the steady acceleration as it burned for over two minutes. I warily watched the gauges that told me our engine was burning smoothly, speeding us on the curved pathway out of lunar orbit.

I settled in for our three-day coast back to Earth. Mission control signed off, reminding us that “our ever-watchful eye will be on you while you sleep.”

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