Apollo astronaut inspires space center crowd

DOWNEY - Al Worden grew up on a farm in Michigan, graduated from West Point (two years after the end of the Korean War), became an Air Force training and test pilot, and, as the command module pilot on Apollo 15, flew to the moon in 1971. Back on earth, he, along with his Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin, addressed a joint session of Congress, was wined and dined by President Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew at the White House, and was honored with a New York motorcade through Manhattan.His is an incredible story, full of fascinating twists and turns, on one side exhibiting his breathtaking mastery of the skies in his T-38 Talon jet or Hawker Hunter, and on the other showing him humbled by a case of human frailty. Then like a true West Pointer ("duty, honor, country"), he would rise up and again stand tall, and make peace with himself and the world. Worden related some of his rollicking experiences at last Saturday's book signing at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in connection with the publication of his book, "Falling to Earth" (Smithsonian Books). He recounted how in the course of training and writing operational and emergency procedures for the Apollo missions (this was while they trained here in Downey), he or his backup would go over the instruments on the modules again and again until they'd just lodge in the memory. He talked about how, out in space, they would maneuver their spacecraft in the "barbecue" mode on their way to the moon (the book explains this procedure very well: "With no atmosphere in space, the heat from the sun was brutal, and it could scorch the spacecraft skin while the shadowed side chilled far below freezing. Spacecraft systems could fail and windows could crack if we allowed this extreme temperature difference. A slow, gentle spin maintained an even temperature. We'd spend most of our time rotating this way."). He mentioned how, on the recovery ship's deck after their splashdown, to avoid falling down because he didn't have his sea-legs yet, he just willed one leg to make one step after the other (he said it usually takes two weeks to get your sea-legs back). He remembered how he actually enjoyed orbiting the moon by himself ("Several days with two other guys in a VW Beetle is enough!"). Connecting most with the estimated audience of some 200 people was the lengthy time that the team spent in Downey, as already mentioned, testing and studying the Apollo 9 and Apollo 12 as well as Apollo 15 modules - all made by North American Aviation here in Downey - and his stays in the Tahitian Village motel; and his selective description of his activities and observations aboard the Apollo 15 spacecraft. His presentation, laced as it was with a folksy sense of humor and imbued with a self-assured tone that reflected his independent approach to life and problem-solving, seemingly proved so effective that people stood in two rows afterwards to have their books (in most cases more than one copy was tucked under their arms) signed by him and co-author Francis French, British-born director of education for the San Diego Air & Space Museum. In his foreword to the book, astronaut Dick Gordon, Worden's Apollo 15 backup and good friend, acknowledged that the fifth group (in the choice of astronauts) which included Worden in 1966, "although they may not have realized it at the time, would play a major role in virtually all American spaceflights from early Apollo missions up to and including early space shuttle flights." He also said that "Apollo 15 became known as perhaps the best of the Apollo program." "With this book," Gordon added, "you will experience one of humankind's greatest adventures." It's a forthright, honest, and verifiable claim. Not content with my notes, I finagled a copy of his book and started reading. Worden, as French said to me, "is a great storyteller" He was right. Episode after episode is told briskly, and with narrative punch. Here, for example, as part of the team's preparation for the actual mission, Worden describes how they had to study, among other things, geology: "We traveled all over the world to study as many moon-like geologic regions as we could. I spent around ten days exploring the volcanically active regions of Iceland, a place so stark and barren I felt as if I were already on the moon.. We were there in the summertime, and it seemed like the sun never set. You could be out at 3 a.m. and see people strolling the city streets, the stores still open….NASA also sent us to explore Alaska, home to valleys of fumaroles that steamed scalding gases into the cold air. Our planet is a living, changing, dynamic place, and learning this amazed me…We also explored regions in Mexico, California, New Mexico, and the majestic volcanoes of Hawaii. It was a magical experience to walk across the throats of active lava flows in the early Hawaiian morning, as steam rose from cracks in the fresh rock…We also explored lava flows in Oregon…we journeyed to Meteor Crater in Arizona…we visited calderas in Texas…we trekked down to the floor of the Grand Canyon…" The day of the launch, Worden describes the scene: "The Saturn V rocket was huffing as puffs of vapor vented from it; the tanks were continually topped off. The Saturn V reminded me of a tethered animal pawing at the ground, ready to run. It no longer seemed like a large chunk of metal-it appeared to fume with frustration, ready to be unleashed, unrestrained." After a few minutes and thousands of miles still farther, this observation: "The beautiful planet Earth stretched below us, with a thin horizon that knifed between sky and black space. It was stunning and strikingly delicate. And because we were so low, we zipped across oceans and continents in minutes." And again: "We were shooting for a moving target. Because the moon orbits Earth, we had to aim not for the moon itself, but where the moon was going to be. It was like firing two bullets, wanting them not to hit each other, but to barely miss. If we got it wrong, space was an unforgiving place. We had to trust the math in our flight plan completely. We checked our numbers a lot." Again: "In my six days circling the moon, no matter what I was doing, I stopped to look at the Earth rise. It was the most beautiful thing I had every seen or imagined. I would see it seventy-five times in all." At age 79, Al Worden still looks alert, sprightly and vigorous, and doesn't show signs of slowing down. He can't. Today his energies are focused on running the Florida-based Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which hands out scholarships to bright college students exhibiting "exceptional performance" in science and engineering, and who may someday "make a real difference to future innovation." He loves what he's doing and he's totally committed to it, he said. The flyer for last Saturday's book signing referred to irrepressible Worden as "moon voyager." With his love of adventure, and his achievements to prove it, he fits the description to a T. He may not now be as recognizable as the more famous Buzz Aldrin or Neil Armstrong or Alan Shepard, but with his book's publication, more and more people are bound to appreciate his true legacy to the whole space program. I also like his comment about people rising above issues of race, religion, or politics - to ensure the future of mankind and the planet, very apropos in this critical time when the nation picks its leaders.

********** Published: September 01, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 20