Interview: Apollo astronaut Al Worden

Col. Al Worden is an Engineer and Apollo 15 CMP. His autobiography is called Falling to Earth.

Audio: Al Worden on the view from the back side of the Moon and the scale of the universe. Photo: Stuart Crawford

Avi Solomon: What were the major formative influences as you were growing up?

Col. Al Worden: There were a number of major influences on my life. My grandfather was probably as big an influence on me as anyone. He was a farmer in the upper part of the state of Michigan. He actually homesteaded the land. My granddad had a team of horses and everything was done with them. Back then it was one guy against the dirt on his farm and against mother nature trying to make a living out of owning a farm. I used to go up there and spend the summers with him on the farm and what I got from him was a sense of responsibility and a sense of perseverance and dedication to the job at hand. And then when I worked my way through school my high school principal was a great influence on me and he always told me that I could do anything I wanted to do if I just put my mind to it and worked hard at it and that's the way it worked out. He actually got me a scholarship to the University of Michigan, my first year, and during that year because of the family financial situation we were in, I applied for an appointment to West Point and received that from from one of the state senators and went to West Point. That kind of set me a path into the air Force and then back to college and then off doing work for the Air Force after that. I think that Earl Holman, my principal was probably a huge influence on my life.

Avi: That probably explains why you're so interested in childhood education.

Al: That's part of it. I was very involved with everything at my school. In fact at one point I actually took under my wing a fellow in my class who was having problems with the police and they actually paroled him to me and while he was with me he did very well. I was very interested in his education and keeping him going and that kind of translated into a real interest in motivating and getting young kids to go to school and do well.

Avi: How did you get into the Apollo program?

Al: I flew in the Air Force for a number of years and it was quite obvious to me that the next assignment would be a staff job somewhere and I decided that if I was going to be sitting at a desk I should do it for my benefit as well as the Air Force's. So I got myself an appointment to go back to the University of Michigan to graduate school. and while I was there I met a couple of guys, one was the deputy director of the USAF test pilot's school at Edwards and the other was the head of Academics there. Because of my friendship with them they interested me in applying for test pilot school which I did and I got an appointment to go to Europe to go through the Empire test pilot school in England. It's one of those things that you do the best and everything you can in the career path you've chosen and when you get all the way through that pipeline you find that other doors open. It turned out that NASA had an application program about a year after I'd graduated from test pilot school and I kind of had the stuff that they needed.

Avi: So you had the right skills at the right time?

Al: That's exactly right. I had both the academic background and the test pilot school background. As a matter of fact when I was selected into NASA I was an instructor at the Aerospace Advanced Research pilot school at Edwards, California.

Avi: What was the secret sauce to being an Apollo Astronaut?

Al: To get into the program it was a question of your background and all the requirements that you met like academics, flying time and being a test pilot and all that. Once in the program I think just dedication to learning everything you can and doing everything right and not playing office politics were the important things, as far as I was concerned. I was an engineer by training, I was a test pilot and I very quickly got into projects that required those particular values and that helped me in the program. I don't know that there's a secret sauce. The funny thing about the astronaut program is that everyone who was in the program was an individual. And there were very individualistic people. I think that's testament to their backgrounds and their dedication to getting all the training they could get before they got into the program and they had to do that on their own. So there were pretty individualistic type of people in the program and once they got assigned to a crew then they molded themselves into a crew of three people to go to the moon. But that's how they got there. Very hard-driving type people that were going to get all the training they could get. It may not have been for the space program, it could have been for other things like being a test pilot in the Air Force. But once they got all of those qualifications in their kitbag then they were acceptable to the program. Once in the program we all had to apply ourselves to all the things we had to learn about space and how to navigate and how to fly. In my particular crew we learned an awful lot of geology because we were going to explore the moon and those kinds of things. It's a dedication to the job and the ability or the willingness to work long hard hours to amass all of the knowledge you need to be able to make the flight.

Avi: Were there project management or design principles that made the program as a whole a success?

Al: Yes, I think that's absolutely true. When I was in the program back in the late sixties and early seventies there was no bureaucracy in the program. We had a goal of getting to the moon and getting back and everybody worked to that goal. I really didn't see a lot of bureaucracy. I think that crept into the program later on when the shuttle program came about. But when I was there everybody was focused on the goal and there was nobody that was trying to protect their job – they were all trying to get the job done. I think that's the thing that made the difference. And of course we had a fantastic design team in Wernher von Braun and his team that put the Saturn V launch vehicle and the Apollo spacecraft together, plus the architecture of how you go to the moon and how you land on the moon with the lunar module, that was all pretty much worked out years before we started making the flights, but that all came together very well. I think it was a lot of hard work, some excellent engineering and some very dedicated management people who were only focused on getting people to the moon safely.

Avi: How important were simulations in the Astronaut training?

Al: It's a great difference between flying an airplane and flying a spacecraft. In an airplane you can go up with an instructor and he can show you all the things that an airplane can do and he coaches you through how to fly an airplane sort of on-site – you get in an airplane and you go fly it. With a spacecraft you don't have that ability to just fly that thing around a little bit so you've got to do it in simulation. Simulation is the only way you can learn how to really fly that thing. So our simulator was absolutely perfect. It did everything that we would see in flight: all the visuals, all the noise, the mechanical part, the computer, the navigation; everything in the simulator worked exactly like it would in the flight. And that really trained us for the flight because once we in the flight it was sort of like doing the simulation all over again.

Avi: What made the Saturn V so special? Would it be easy to build it again today?

Al: That's a good question! Saturn V was obviously the largest launch vehicle ever built. It was designed from the ground up by the people at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and that's where Wernher von Braun was the director and he kind of oversaw the design and the buildup of the Saturn V. It was early in the space business and all the engines on the Saturn V were liquid fuel engines. Liquid fuel engines are more complicated than solid boosters but they have some attributes that solids don't have. In fact on some of the engines we could start and stop them in space, which you can't do with a solid. The Saturn V engines had an attribute called center line of thrust: the engines were stacked close enough together at the base of the launch vehicle so that if you lost one the others could tilt slightly to take over for that one engine. As a matter of fact on one of the flights they lost the center engine and they just kept on going, it took them a little longer to get into orbit but everything was fine. With solid boosters that's pretty tough to do because if you lose one you have to lose both. The Saturn V was an absolutely wondrous machine: Seven and a half million pounds of thrust to get it off the ground and as I said it's the largest machine that's ever been built. There are three Saturn Vs that are still around on display. Most of the parts of those three are actual flight-type vehicles. The question of whether you could resurrect the Saturn V today or not, I'm not really too qualified to answer that. I would think that it could probably be done. They could go back and get the old designs and the plans and have it rebuilt. It's not a question of having to demonstrate it or prove it, just to build it. I think it could be done but I'm just not sure that that's something that is in the cards, I'm not sure that the direction of the program is going to allow that.

Avi: So it was kind of good that the last missions were cancelled so we have the Saturn Vs on display!

Al: In a way. Of course there were a lot of us back in the day really disappointed that Apollos' 18, 19 and 20 never flew. They were flight ready vehicles – they could have gone and there were crews to fly them. But NASA around about that time back in 71 before we flew decided that the money that it would take to fly those Saturn Vs they needed to use to continue the development of the Shuttle. So that money was taken away from the Apollo program and put in the Shuttle program. There could have been other reasons too that I'm not aware of. But it would have been nice to fly 18, 19 and 20 for sure. You know, I look back upon it now Avi, and when I go to the Saturn V center at the Cape and look at that Saturn V sitting there in the building I kind of think in a way, that's not so bad. I got my flight, I made my flight to to the Moon so I'm not missing anything. But a thousand years from now, it's going to be really, really something for people to walk through that Saturn V building and see what we were able to do back in the 1960s.

Avi: I was there a few months ago and it was astonishing.

Al: That's quite a machine isn't it!

Avi: It's on the scale of the Great Pyramid of Egypt, which I've visited, so I can compare.

Al: I think a lot of people compare the Apollo program to building the pyramids of Egypt and I think that's right. It took as many people! I mean there were half a million people around the country that were working on the Apollo program at the time. So a lot of people, a lot of engineering, a lot of tough decisions made and most of them were right because we had very little trouble to getting six flights to land on the moon.

Avi: You spent a lot of time circling the moon alone. Could you describe what it was like?

Al: Well, it was kind of a wonderful time for me Avi! I was trained as a single-seat fighter pilot to begin with and so I like to be in a flying machine by myself. Lot of people think it's pretty lonely up there but on my flight I was there for three days in orbit while Dave Scott and Jim Irwin were on the surface and during those three days I was busy like 20 hours a day doing all the experiments and the science that were called for in the flight-plan. So I was really, really busy. I enjoyed the time by myself, I enjoyed looking at the moon's surface and describing features which Dr. El-Baz and I had worked out before the flight. He was my geologist instructor. So I was very busy not only doing visual observations but mapping the surface of the moon, taking high resolution pictures of the surface and doing a lot of photography work both of the moon and other features like star-patterns and that kind of thing. So it was a good time for me, I enjoyed it. I have to admit that I wasn't really very lonely after flying with those two guys in a spacecraft about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, I was glad to get rid of them for a while, so it was very comfortable for me.

Avi: What's the view from the back of the moon?

Al: There are two things that are important: there's the back side of the moon and there's the dark side to the moon. They are two different things. The back side is the side away from the earth and the dark side is the side away from the sun. So they're not the same thing. On our flight the moon was about half lit, so there was about half a moon. So there was a little space around the back side as I was going around it where I was shadowed from both the Earth and the Sun and that was pretty amazing. I could see more stars than I could possibly imagine. It really makes you wonder about our place in the Universe and what we're all about. When you see that many stars out there you realize that those are really suns and those suns could have planets around them and all that kind of stuff. But probably the most spectacular part of going to the back side of the moon was coming around the moon and seeing the earth come up. And of course home planet is a pretty spectacular place. It is the only planet in the solar system that has all of the ingredients we need for life. It has water, it has land, it has the atmosphere and so it's a pretty gorgeous thing to look at from out there. And so no matter what I was doing, when I came around the side of the moon and the Earth was rising over the lunar surface I got to a window to watch it. That was pretty spectacular.

Avi: Like the crescent earth photo you took.

Al: Yes, it's my favorite photo. The crescent part of the earth you see is covered with clouds.

Avi: Could you see the outline of the milky way or were there just too many stars?

Al: Too many stars, Avi, yes. As you know we're part of the milky way galaxy and we look at it sideways, we look through it. When there's so many stars that you look at out there it's very hard to make out anything like a milky way or anything like that. In fact, there were so many stars I had some difficulty finding any of the 37 brighter stars that we used as navigation stars because they were so bathed in starlight from the other stars around them.

Avi: So, for example, you would try and find Sirius and…

Al: …and it would be very difficult to find. And there were times when I had to let the computer drive the optics to the star that I wanted to use for navigation because I had difficulty finding it with all the other stars out there.

Avi: The number of galaxies, let alone stars is truly astonishing!

Al: Oh yes! People don't understand. I've developed the attitude that there's something like no beginning or end of time and there's no such thing as infinity because everything just keeps going. In the milky way galaxy there are a couple of hundred billion stars and there are a couple of hundred billion galaxies out there. So we really don't have a very good concept of the universe. I think we're getting to it with the Hubble and Kepler and a few of the other satellites that are out there now. Eventually we'll kind of figure it out but we're a long ways from understanding the universe.

Avi: There's probably like a few billion stars per person alive.

Al: Well I would think so, yes. I have never looked at it that way, but yes, my guess is that's correct.

Avi: So how do you keep this kind of wonder alive?

Al: Well, you talk about it a lot. Every time I give a talk I talk about the universe out there and the numbers of stars and how beautiful the earth is and all that. You talk about it, you write about it, you try and get people involved in what you're saying and I think that most of us are fairly successful at doing that.

Avi: The other amazing thing you saw was on your EVA. It was the first interplanetary EVA?

Al: Yes. And as a matter of fact I was further out from Earth than any of the others. I still have the record for the furthest out EVA. A little about 50,000 miles this side of the moon when I did that. It was kind of unique because as you know when the spacecraft comes back from the moon it doesn't come straight back – it loops around. It makes a big arc path to get back to the earth because of the motion of the moon and the earth and all the rest of it. So we were off the center-line of the moon and the earth and I could see the both of them at the same time. Pretty spectacular – you look at the moon and there's nothing there except craters and ancient lava flows and that kind of thing, then you look at the Earth and it's very dynamic, it's got cloud cover and all the stuff that we know about. The difference between the two is pretty dramatic. Spectacular sight, I have to say from out there, especially when you're standing in the middle of a spacesuit with a bubble helmet and you can kind of look around. Jim Irwin was standing in the hatch at the time watching me and making sure that everything was OK. The moon was behind him, in fact there's a painting at the Smithsonian that Pierre Mion did of my EVA since I wasn't allowed to take a camera out, and it shows Jim Irwin standing in the hatch with the moon behind him and I was reflected in his visor. Kind of a neat painting.

Avi: Even if you had a camera would you have been able to capture the earth and the moon together?

Al: No, I couldn't do that because they were too far apart for that but that really wasn't the purpose. I really wanted to take a camera out to photograph the outside of the service module and we found some things where photographs would have been helpful. We found that there was some scorching from the reaction control system jets. The mapping camera had stuck out and wouldn't retract. Some pictures and all of that stuff would have been useful for the engineers back in Houston. And I kind of sensed that there might be things like that I would really like to take pictures of but not the earth and the moon because I'd already done that when I was in lunar orbit.

A page from "Hello Earth", Al Worden's book of poetry

Avi: So is this what inspired you to write a book of poetry? I think you're one of the only astronauts who's composed a book of poetry.

Al: You know what happened. When we got back from the flight we went into two weeks of debriefing. We were pretty exhausted from the flight and we spent all day long from early morning to early evening debriefing and when I'd get home I'd just be totally exhausted and I couldn't go to sleep. So I'd sit in my living room with a pad of paper and a pencil and just start writing things and when we looked at it later it was just kind of like poetry so I rearranged it a little bit and the poetry came out. Poetry is kind of a shorthand for the feelings and the thought processes that you're going through and that's kind of what came out on the paper so that's what ended up as the book of poetry.

Avi: It's really a very personal piece of work. You talk there about "rebirth at thirty-nine".

Al: Yes. That was on the EVA. I had the thought that it's just like being born because you're getting out of the spacecraft out into the world on your own. And that's what brought that up. I was reborn at thirty-nine because that EVA did that for me. As a matter of fact I kind of had that feeling of rebirth going outside. A whole new perspective on everything.

Avi: And it's also interesting that one of the poems ends with "God made it all".

Al: Well, that's kind of feeling that you get. And that really doesn't answer the question of what you think God is. But when you look at the universe out there and you see all those billions of stars and you see they're all formed in galaxies, and the galaxies break down into stars and some of those stars even further break down into planetary systems, you say – man, there is an organization to this universe that we just can't comprehend. There had to be something, somewhere, somehow that made this all happen. In my mind it just didn't spring out of nothing. How better do you describe it? You have to say that there's some other force, some other power whether you call it God or chairman of the board or CEO or whatever you want to call it. Something somewhere had to work to put all this together in the consistency of what we see of the universe.

Avi: That's probably why many of the Apollo astronauts had a more religious or philosophical turn in their lives after they returned from the moon?

Al: I suspect so. Several of the guys when they came back became quite religious. I think being away from earth that far and looking back at earth had a big influence on those guys too. Because we live in the only planet we know of that's habitable and something had to make that happen. In fact Jim Irwin founded High Flight foundation and he went all over the world giving testimony after the flight. I think that's great. Other guys like Ed Mitchell got into psychic phenomena because of the flight. He was already interested in it but he kind of focused his attention on it after the flight. It's interesting what happened to the guys once they made their flight. Some guys like Pete Conrad said that's just another flight and then there's guys like Jim Irwin who said he felt the presence of God on the moon. He gave testimony for christian fellowship organizations.

Avi: So now, forty years down the line, do you still have the same intensity of feeling when you remember your experiences?

Al: Not quite the same intensity. In fact I look at the moon at night and I say – hmm, that's kind of neat because I've seen it up close. I'll tell you what it's a little like. Through all the training and all the simulation you get so immersed in the project that you don't really look at anything else for the time you're in training. It's just so all consuming. And when you come back you go through two weeks of debriefing and then you're let out into the world. It's a little like going to a movie, and you get immersed in the movie and then when the movie's over you walk out on the street, cars are going by, people are walking and talking and doing their thing. And you're back in the real world again. And you say Gee, that was kind of an interesting little episode in my life, I watched that movie and got totally involved in it but here I am back in the real world. It's kind of like that after you make a lunar flight. I won't say that it's imaginary, but it's an experience that's so unlike anything you've ever had in your life that it's almost as if it's mystical in a way. And then when you come back to earth and you land and everything's OK and you do your debriefings, all of a sudden you're back out in the real world again. And now you remember what it was, but the sharp edges of the remembrances get filed off after a while. You remember some of the important things but a lot of the technical stuff I've totally forgotten. But I do remember the experience of going to the moon, being in lunar orbit for six days and coming back home – I remember all of that quite well. But some of the technical stuff like how did we do it I don't remember that.

Avi: Could you tell us a little about your autobiography?

Al: Most of the book is about where I come from, how I grew up and how I selected the career path that I did and going through school and all that.
The first part of the book is about spending the days on the farm with my granddad and learning how to be responsible. You've got dumb animals out there that rely on you to do everything for them. That's a thought process that I've kept all my life. But I decided when I was a kid that I would not spend the rest of my time on a farm so that's why I pursued going to college and eventually to the Air Force.
But then we get into the space program and the aftermath of our flight. As you know our flight was kind of singled out back in the day because we carried some postal covers that created quite a stir. The last part of the book is about how I sued the US Government. They had asked us to turn all of these things in while they investigated the incident, then they didn't want to return them. So I sued them back in the 80s on behalf of all the astronauts and we took that through the Department of Justice and got everything back. And what I've done since then because I've applied myself to helping charities and working with kids I think to try and get some respect back.

Avi: What skills would you advise today's high school kids to acquire?

Al: There's no question about it. I'm an engineer, Avi. My best subjects in school were math and science. There's no question that I'd go to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses and do absolutely the best I could at those because I really believe that as we go into the future we're going to need some very very innovative people to upgrade old technologies and invent new technologies. Of course that's the kind of thing that's made this country so great over the course of the last forty years is the technology. So that would be my course. And like I tell high school and college kids when I talk to them that the best thing they could do with their lives is to really apply themselves to learning everything they can because you never know what's going to come down the road and what you're going to need.

Another page from "Hello Earth."

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