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Al Worden: Apollo 15 Astronaut

Al Worden's discovery that he liked to fly planes led him to becoming an astronaut and piloting the Apollo 15 command module. (Image credit: NASA)

Al Worden is a NASA astronaut who flew above the moon in Apollo 15. Once a military flying instructor, he found himself learning more about geology than he expected when his moon mission was designated as a science-heavy mission.

Worden retired from NASA in 1975 and continues to make public appearances today concerning his time on the moon, including for the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

An accidental gift for flying

Worden didn't grow up with a love of flying, but as he progressed through childhood he began to pursue avenues of leaving his farming life behind.

"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.

Flying was something he stumbled upon as something he enjoyed and was good at, Worden recalled.

"I began to realize that flying was kind of my game. It was a thing that I was very attuned to. 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."

Adding more science

Worden arrived at NASA as one of a large 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.

Still, training did turn up a surprise for the crew. Initially they were supposed to be part of a group of missions that would do some preliminary explorations, but then the mission was designated as one that would place additional scientific responsibilities on the crew.

In between their training on spacecraft, the crew crammed in work on geology and learning to operate the lunar rover, a brand-new vehicle for the mission. Worden, who would remain in orbit, found himself learning about mapping cameras and scientific instruments he would use to examine the 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 picked up anorthosites on the surface – including the famed Genesis Rock that is more than 4 billion years old – Worden did scientific observations from orbit. His descriptions of Littrow, which some scientists thought was a volcanic area, likely helped in the area's selection as the Apollo 17 lunar landing site.

Worden had a chance to do a spacewalk of his own, however. After the astronauts had packed their lunar gear and were on their way back to Earth, Worden went outside the command module for 38 minutes to retrieve camera film mounted in canisters outside the spacecraft.

The Apollo 15 crew splashed down in August 1971 after what many considered a highly successful mission, but they were later reprimanded by NASA for carrying unauthorized stamp covers to the moon for a private collector.

In his NASA interview, Worden said the crew carried 100 covers known to all three crew members, covers he assumed were authorized on the manifest. The crew intended to receive proceeds for their children's education, but only after the program was over.

Scott, he added, had an additional 300 covers that Irwin and Worden didn't know about. "That created quite a flap," Worden said.

Worden also expressed his displeasure at how little support he received from NASA when the matter came before politicians.

"We probably didn’t do the smartest thing in the world, but we didn’t do anything that was illegal," he added, saying other crews had done similar things.

As the Apollo program wrapped up in 1972, Worden became senior aerospace scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, then became chief of the systems study division at the same location.

He retired from NASA in 1975 to take on several positions in private industry, and to this day does occasional speaking engagements about his time in the moon program.

— Elizabeth Howell, Contributor

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