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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Reading List: Falling to Earth

Worden, Al with Francis French. Falling to Earth. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-58834-309-3.
Al Worden (his given name is Alfred, but he has gone by “Al” his whole life) was chosen as a NASA astronaut in April 1966, served as backup command module pilot for the Apollo 12 mission, the second Moon landing, and then flew to the Moon as command module pilot of Apollo 15, the first serious geological exploration mission. As command module pilot, Worden did not land on the Moon but, while tending the ship in orbit awaiting the return of his crewmates, operated a series of scientific experiments, some derived from spy satellite technology, which provided detailed maps of the Moon and a survey of its composition. To retrieve the film from the mapping cameras in the service module, Worden performed the first deep-space EVA during the return to Earth.

Growing up on a farm in rural Michigan during the first great depression and the second World War, Worden found his inclination toward being a loner reinforced by the self-reliance his circumstances forced upon him. He remarks on several occasions how he found satisfaction in working by himself and what he achieved on his own and while not disliking the company of others, found no need to validate himself through their opinions of him. This inner-directed drive led him to West Point, which he viewed as the only way to escape from a career on the farm given his family's financial circumstances, an Air Force commission, and graduation from the Empire Test Pilots' School in Farnborough, England under a US/UK exchange program.

For one inclined to be a loner, it would be difficult to imagine a more ideal mission than Worden's on Apollo 15. Orbiting the Moon in the command module Endeavour for almost three days by himself he was, at maximum distance on the far side of the Moon, more isolated from his two crewmates on the surface than any human has been from any other humans before or since (subsequent Apollo missions placed the command module in a lower lunar orbit, reducing this distance slightly). He candidly admits how much he enjoyed being on his own in the capacious command module, half the time entirely his own man while out of radio contact behind the Moon, and how his joy at the successful return of his comrades from the surface was tempered by how crowded and messy the command module was with them, the Moon rocks they collected, and all the grubby Moon dust clinging to their spacesuits on board.

Some Apollo astronauts found it difficult to adapt to life on Earth after their missions. Travelling to the Moon before you turn forty is a particularly extreme case of “peaking early”, and the question of “What next?” can be formidable, especially when the entire enterprise of lunar exploration was being dismantled at its moment of triumph. Still, one should not overstate this point: of the twenty-four astronauts who flew to the Moon, most went on to subsequent careers you'd expect for the kind of overachievers who become astronauts in the first place—in space exploration, the military, business, politics, education, and even fine arts. Few, however, fell to Earth so hard as the crew of Apollo 15. The collapse of one of their three landing parachutes before splashdown due to the canopy's being eroded due to a dump of reaction control propellant might have been seen as a premonition of this, but after the triumphal conclusion of a perfect mission, a White House reception, an address to a joint session of Congress, and adulatory celebrations on a round-the-world tour, it all came undone in an ugly scandal involving, of all things, postage stamps.

The Apollo 15 crew, like those of earlier NASA missions, had carried on board as part of their “personal preference kits” postage stamp covers commemorating the flight. According to Worden's account in this book, the Apollo 15 covers were arranged by mission commander Dave Scott, and agreed to by Worden and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin on Scott's assurance that this was a routine matter which would not affect their careers and that any sales of the covers would occur only after their retirement from NASA and the Air Force (in which all three were officers). When, after the flight, the covers began to come onto the market, an ugly scandal erupted, leading to the Apollo 15 crew being removed from flight status, and Worden and Irwin being fired from NASA with reprimands placed in their Air Force records which would block further promotion. Worden found himself divorced (before the Moon mission), out of a job at NASA, and with no future in the Air Force.

Reading this book, you get the impression that this was something like the end of Worden's life. And yet it wasn't—he went on to complete his career in the flight division at NASA's Ames Research Center and retire with the rank and pension of a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He then served in various capacities in private sector aerospace ventures and as chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Honestly, reading this book, you get the sense that everybody has forgotten the stupid postage stamps except the author. If there is some kind of redemption to be had by recounting the episode here (indeed, “Redemption” is the title of chapter 13 of this work), then fine, but whilst reading this account, I found myself inclined to shout, “Dude—you flew to the Moon! Yes, you messed up and got fired—who hasn't? But you landed on your feet and have had a wonderful life since, including thirty years of marriage. Get over the shaggy brown ugliness of the 1970s and enjoy the present and all the years to come!”

Posted at October 1, 2011 22:24