The beauty of the moon hanging in the night’s sky has been central to writing for thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans named gods after our planet's only natural satellite, yet today only 24 men have ever visited the moon and only twelve have left footprints on its surface.
It’s not every day you get to meet one of your heroes. As a small boy in the early 1970s I used to dream of the Apollo moon missions and travel in my dreams to the dusty grey-cratered world I had seen in photographs. Only a dozen men walked on the moon and as the decades roll away, their number sadly is dwindling. One of the Apollo astronauts who didn’t touch its surface was Command Module pilot Al Worden. His 2011 autobiography Falling to Earth tells his remarkable story as a test pilot and later as a rocket man.
Al Worden, reflecting on a life in aviation and spaceflight, said, “I had the chance to fly the Harrier a few years ago. I remember witnessing Bill Bedford fly that aircraft publicly at Farnborough in 1964: so long ago. That Harrier is still flying. I only made one flight. I was here on a trip giving a talk at Boscombe Down and one of my old classmates took me over to Dunsfold [aerodrome] and Duncan Simpson was there, we made a flight. Easy airplane to fly, if it were true!
“The thing about the Harrier is any bird will take off, if everything is working the way it should; it’s a piece of cake. But if something goes wrong you don’t have much time. If you blow a lift fan or something like that you’ve got to have quick reactions. Remembering Farnborough, Al Worden continued: “I had a wonderful year when I was here in the UK. I had just finished three years of graduate work at college they decided to send me over here because none of our guys could compete academically. I was supposed to go to Bedford where they were doing stuff with vertical landing and takeoff. The US asked me to come back to teach so they cut my visit short but I was still here for about a year and a half. So I went back and that put me in line for NASA.”
Al Worden joined the Astronaut Corps at a time of moon fever. Everyone in the world seemingly wanted to be an astronaut. He trained with the other astronauts and in April 1966 was selected to be one of the three man crew of Apollo 15 alongside Dave Scott and Jim Irwin. His reflections on his time at NASA are at the heart of his extraordinary autobiography Falling to Earth. Worden’s recollections come easily as we chat about spaceflight. “It’s kind of like flying, kind of like driving a car on ice because you can go backwards as easily as forwards. When you’re in space we go backwards most of the time. We had ground stations—they tracked us. They knew where we were. They were very good they had us within probably twenty feet of where we were supposed to be throughout the whole trip.”
The Apollo missions pushed human ingenuity to the limit. “It was an outstanding system based on 1950s technology. We had a computer that had 75K of memory. In fact we were so limited on memory we had to cut some programmes out of it. We had programmes for everything, launch, re-entry, lunar insertion you name it. In an aeroplane you’ve got to keep your hands on the controls, up there you can do whatever manoeuvre you have to do and then leave it alone. Maybe a couple of days later you go back and do it again. It’s not like being in the atmosphere.”
Did he ever worry about equipment failing or an engine failing whilst in space? “Never, now that’s a hell of a bad place to be worried about something. We didn’t worry about anything out there. Just do what you gotta do and kind of expect everything to work. If it doesn’t, you expect to figure out a way to make it work.” It’s the kind of bravado we expect from Apollo astronauts, but Al Worden thinks there is something else too. “We had procedures for everything. Basically we had a malfunction procedure—it was a logic tree we would go down there and figure out how to correct it. The problem is the things that tend to go wrong in flight are things you never thought of. It’s like the computer only knows what you put into it. So it’s garbage in, garbage out. In flight it’s the things you never thought about jump up and bite you, like the Apollo 13 accident. We had a little water leak on our flight inside our cabin. You have to understand the implications of being in space. A bubble of water forms on the valve and keeps growing and growing and growing. It doesn’t go anywhere. How you handle that? If you break the surface tension you end up with thousands of tiny little balls and they are not good for the electronics. It’s very simple—you get a towel and wrap it around the valve. A robot would never have thought of that. I’ve always maintained that why we send humans and not robots. A robot would never figure out how to handle it unless you programmed it to understand. The point is that even if you told the robot how to handle it there would always be something else."
Al Worden’s mission to the moon was in 1971. A lot of years have passed and more than enough to reflect on Apollo 15’s accomplishments as well as his other achievements since. So what inspired him to write the book?
“A lot of things; I wanted to leave a record for my kids of what I did and how I got there. I wanted to correct the record on things that happened after our flight that were presented in a fake way. I got accused of doing some things I didn’t do and I wanted to set the record straight. I had a very good friend who is an author. He’s an Englishman. One way or another we got in touch and talked about doing a book and he then spent a total of three weeks with me just sitting down and recording questions and answers. We had one hundred hours of recorded talk. He then transcribed all that and then he put it all together. The words might be a little bit different—my co author is an absolute wizard with words but most of the verbage in the book is me talking.”
Falling to Earth did more than just tell Al Worden’s story it went on to become a bestseller, something that still excites the former NASA spaceman. “I feel pretty good. It’s the most successful book that the Smithsonian’s ever published as it sold in excess of 50,000 copies. They’re just now going into another printing because they’ve sold out twice.”
Astronauts in the era of the Space Shuttle and beyond marvel at the sight of the planet beneath them but those men who went to the moon, they saw something truly out of this world—the Earth from the viewpoint of another celestial body. Such visions can change a man. Al Worden believes it changed the men of Apollo 15. “There are some guys who still live off their flight. Still think it was the high point of their lives. Then there are others who think oh hum just another flight. You get the complete range. One of the guys I flew with [Jim Irwin] had a religious conversion because of it and founded a Christian Fellowship Organisation called High Flight. He spent the rest of his life working for that. Another guy Ed Mitchell turned to the psychic side and he started psychic experiments and founded a charity in California called Muletic Science. I am kind of in between. It’s a flight—you recognise you’re going to another planet. As we’re sitting there and we go outside you can only see so far—you get in an aeroplane you can see further. You get away from the Earth you can see God damn far. That’s the thing that gets everyone—the further away you get the smaller it gets. When you get to the moon looking back at the Earth it looks about the same size as the moon.”