Issue 2, Winter 2019

Apollo 15 astronaut's new scholarship programme

Inspiring the Next Generation of Space Explorers - Part 2

By Kate Ford  |  07 Jan 2020  | 

Apollo 15 astronaut Colonel Alfred Merrill Worden did not consider the risks when he stepped outside his lunar command module to become the first person to carry out an extra vehicular activity in deep space. For the experienced pilot, it was simply a routine task that he had practised hundreds of times back on Earth.

Al Worden © Michael Cockerham

“I had absolutely no concerns about safety, I had developed the technique and the equipment myself so I was pretty confident,” says Al, who describes the experience to me when we meet at New Scientist Live in London. Tethered to the spacecraft Endeavour, he ventured to retrieve film cassettes from the module cameras. That was in 1971, the early days of space travel. Now aged 87, Al must have spoken about that momentous part of his life hundreds of times. Yet, he speaks about it now in a way that makes me feel it could have happened yesterday. 

“I recovered the film canisters rather quickly and went back out and just stood up. I looked around and saw the Earth and the Moon at the same time. It was a pretty unusual and unique place to be and I think about that a lot. That’s probably the one part of the flight that I keep in my mind,” he says.

Almost 50 years after the event, people are still eager to hear Al talk about his adventures. He is articulate and witty, with an understated aura of accomplishment that is both magnetic and energising. Al is one of only 24 people who have ever travelled to the moon. He was in England to promote his newly launched scholarship programme which offers special astronaut training opportunities to students and teachers from around the world. Al remains passionate about wanting to inspire the next generation of space scientists and explorers.

“What we’re hoping to do is plant some seeds. If we can get four students in England going to space camp, then they’ll come back and start talking about it. And then hopefully, they’ll interest others and maybe we’ll turn the tide on the decreasing number of students who are taking Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics courses,” he says. “That’s our whole purpose, because you’ve got to be an engineer or a scientist or a technological person to build a spacecraft. Lawyers don’t do that.”

Al grew up on a farm in Michigan and joined NASA after serving in the Air Force. He lived in the UK for a while during the 1960’s and says he had his “best training” when he attended the Empire Test Pilots School, which was then stationed at Farnborough. After serving with the astronaut support crew for Apollo 9 and as a reserve pilot for Apollo 12, he became one of the three astronauts selected for the Apollo 15 flight. It was the fourth manned lunar landing mission and took place between 26th July and 7th August, 1971.

“The focus on going back to the moon is very different than it was back in the 60’s,” says Al. “Now we are looking at going back to put a crew there to see what it will take to live in a harsh environment for a long period of time.” He believes that future moon missions should be considered the first step towards finding a habitable planet to ensure long-term survival of the human race.

“I look at things in a very long range view. I believe that we need to get ready eventually for the time when we can’t live here anymore, because the day will come when the sun will burn all the hydrogen in its core. That may be a long, long time in the future but you have to start somewhere. It may take us a million years to get some place where we can live but I think that’s the whole purpose of the space programme. The Moon is the first step, Mars is the second and then we’ll go beyond that.”

Al’s book ‘Falling to Earth’ is published by www.smithsonianbooks.com and is available from online book stores. Visit www.Alworden.com  for more information and www.kallman.com/endeavour for details of his scholarship programme which is open to 15 to 18 year olds and teacher/chaperones. Twitter: @Wordenalfred

Read Part 1 of our Space Exploration Interviews in our 'Premium' section - Interview with Astronaut Tim Peake on why it is so important to study the science of space. https://growinspiritmagazine.com/article/Tim-Peake