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Al Worden: Apollo 15 astronaut and first person to spacewalk in deep space

Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden inside a command module simulator prior to the 1971 moon landing mission.
Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden inside a command module simulator prior to the 1971 moon landing mission.
(Image: © NASA)

Al Worden was a NASA astronaut who flew above the moon with Apollo 15, then performed the first-ever spacewalk in deep space on his return trip from the moon in 1971. 

Worden was part of NASA's fifth class of astronauts, selected in 1966. His first and only trip to space was as the command module pilot for Apollo 15, the fourth mission to land humans on the moon. 

An accidental gift for flying

Worden was born on Feb. 7, 1932 in Jackson, Michigan. He didn't grow up with a love of flying, but knew from a young age that staying on his family farm wasn't what he wanted to do with his life.

"From the age of 12 on, I basically ran the farm, did all the field work, milked the cows, did all that," Worden recalled in a 2000 interview with NASA. "Well, in that period from the time I was 12 until I was 18 and going to college, I made up my mind that this is not what I wanted to do the rest of my life."

Worden attended the United States Military Academy and joined the Air Force upon graduation. Before NASA selected him as an astronaut in 1965, Worden was teaching at the Aerospace Research Pilots School.

During his time in the Air Force and as a teacher, Worden discovered how much he loved flying and seemed to have a knack for it. 

"I began to realize that flying was kind of my game. It was a thing that I was very attuned to," he said. "I got involved in all of the systems on an airplane. I really got wrapped up in how you fly an airplane and what you do."

Preparing for Apollo 15

Al Worden's official NASA portrait.  (Image credit: NASA)

Worden arrived at NASA as a member of the agency's fifth group of astronauts in 1966. The new astronauts jokingly dubbed themselves the "Original 19," an homage to the "Original Seven" group of astronauts who flew the first Mercury missions in space.

Three years after his appointment, Worden was a part of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 9 — the first docking of the Apollo program. Next, he was slotted as a backup command pilot for Apollo 12.

Traditionally, astronauts put into backup positions at that time could expect a flight three missions later. As expected, Worden was assigned to Apollo 15 as a command module pilot.

Initially, the Apollo 15 crew were supposed to be part of a group of missions that would perform preliminary explorations, but ultimately, the mission was redesignated as one that would place more scientific responsibilities on the crew.

In addition to their spacecraft training, the crew studied geology and learned to operate the lunar rover, a brand-new vehicle for the mission. Worden, who would remain in orbit, had to become an expert in using mapping cameras and other scientific instruments he would use to examine the lunar surface.

"That added an extra burden, but it also added a lot of excitement, because we kind of felt like the program … [was] getting mature," Worden said. "We're doing the all-up program now. We're not just getting out on the moon and walking around for six hours and getting back in and saying, 'Hey, I've been there,' and collect a few rocks. Now we had to do some things."

Watching the moon

While crewmates David Scott and Jim Irwin collected rocks on the moon's surface — including the famed Genesis Rock that is more than 4 billion years old — Worden performed scientific observations from orbit. Alone in orbit around the moon — in 2015, Guinness World Records recognized Worden as the "most isolated that any human has been from another person," having reached a distance of 2,235 miles (3,600 kilometers) from Scott and Irwin on the lunar surface. 

Worden spent the same three days keeping the command module running and on course, while operating science experiments and collecting imagery of the moon below. His descriptions of Littrow, a region of the moon that some scientists thought was a volcanic area, likely helped in the area's selection as the Apollo 17 lunar landing site.

"I was on my own solo science mission now," Worden wrote in his 2011 autobiography, "Falling to Earth" (Smithsonian Books, 2012), written with author Francis French. 

Worden also had to perform a spacewalk on his own. After Scott and Irwin had returned to the command module and the spacecraft left lunar orbit, Worden went outside the spacecraft for 39 minutes and 7 seconds to retrieve camera film mounted in canisters outside the spacecraft. In doing so, Worden was the first astronaut to engage in deep space extravehicular activity (EVA) on Aug. 5, 1971.

Astronaut Al Worden performs a spacewalk outside the Apollo 15 command and service module on the way back from the moon on Aug. 5, 1971.  (Image credit: NASA)

"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 view is impossible to see on Earth or on the moon," Worden recalled of his time floating in the vacuum of space, more than 196,000 miles (315,500 km) from Earth. "I had to be far enough away from both. In all of human history, no one had been able to see what I could just by turning my head. It was incredible."

The Apollo 15 crew splashed down in August 1971 in the North Pacific Ocean. Worden had logged 12 days, 7 hours and 11 minutes on his journey from the moon and back.

The mission was a success, but became controversial after NASA reprimanded the astronauts for carrying a set of stamped envelopes to the moon for a private collector who subsequently sold them. The collector paid all three astronauts for the service.

Although it wasn't illegal or unprecedented, Worden was reassigned to Ames Research Center in California in 1972, where he served as chief of the systems study division until his retirement from NASA in 1975. "We probably didn't do the smartest thing in the world, but we didn't do anything that was illegal," Worden said about the matter, saying other crews had done similar things. Worden also expressed his displeasure at how little support he received from NASA when the matter came before politicians.

Worden's legacy

After departing the space program and retiring from the Air Force with the rank of colonel, Worden served as vice president of Goodrich Aerospace. In 1982, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives for Florida's 12th District but lost in the Republican primary. He later served as the chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, an organization founded by the Mercury astronauts.

In 2019, Worden partnered with Kallman Worldwide to establish the Astronaut Al Worden Endeavour Scholarship to reward "aspiring young space explorers" and their teachers with training experiences at U.S. Space Camp in Alabama.

Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden is the namesake of the Astronaut Al Worden Endeavour Scholarship. (Image credit: Kallman Worldwide)

In addition to his 2011 autobiography, Worden published a collection of his poetry, "Hello Earth: Greetings From Endeavour" (Nash publications, 1974) and a children's book, "I Want to Know About a Flight to the Moon" (Doubleday, 1974). Between 1972 and 1975, he made seven guest appearances on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and in 2018, he served as the on-set technical consultant for the feature-length Neil Armstrong biopic, "First Man."

Worden was honored by NASA with its Distinguished Service Medal in 1971 and Ambassador of Exploration Award in 2009, the latter featuring a moon rock that he placed on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1983, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1997 and the International Air & Space Hall of Fame in 2016.

Worden died on March 18, 2020 at the age of 88.

"NASA sends its condolences to the family and loved ones of Apollo astronaut Al Worden, an astronaut whose achievements in space and on Earth will not be forgotten," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the time. "We remember this pioneer whose work expanded our horizons."

Additional resources:

  • Read NASA's statement on the passing of Al Worden. 
  • Find a collection of news about Al Worden from NASA.
  • Learn more about the Apollo 15 mission from NASA.  

This article was updated on March 23, 2020 by Space.com reference editor, Kimberly Hickok. 

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