Alfred Merrill "Al" Worden, is an American astronaut and engineer who was the Command Module Pilot for the Apollo 15 lunar mission in 1971. He is one of only 24 people to have flown to the Moon.
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I was the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 15.
I was one of the 19 astronauts selected by NASA in April 1966, in the 5th group of astronauts selected. I served as a member of the astronaut support crew for the Apollo 9 flight and as backup command module pilot for the Apollo 12 flight.
Hi Al! Thanks for doing this AMA, glad your OP grandson delivered on this. I am fascinated by people like you and am continually inspired by space and the future of us in space. If I was able to speak to you in person I would have a lot to say so I’ll keep this brief for you.
My question(s) is, do you feel that the role of Command Module Pilot is a job that is an underappreciated job when perceived by most of history? Why?
And what do you personally believe is the future of space technology and exploration at the present time?
Yes, I think the role of the CMP is underrated by mostly the media. When I flew back in the 1970s the CMP did 95% of the flying and in-fact from the point of the program, being a CMP was the shortest way to become a commander. So it was a coveted position on a flight. The media has focused more on people who have walked on the moon, but in terms of the technical side of space flight, the CMP was much more important.
Was going to the moon tough to top? Did you come back and have trouble figuring out 'what next'?
That's a very good question. Going to the moon required a skillset, much like driving a car or flying an airplane. There are many other intellectual challenges that require thought process way beyond anything I needed to make a lunar flight. I think it's very important for the future that we motivate young people in STEM courses, and that, to me, is intellectually challenging.
What made you want to become an astronaut?
Because they had a selection process. Never thought of it before that. I was very well situated as an instructor at the test pilot school and I was very happy with that job.
Mars is only the next step out. What the space program is all about is finding another Earth-like planet where we can live when Earth is no longer live-able. The nearest one we know of is 3.2 light years away.
Hey Al!! How are you doing today?
I have two questions for you:
Hello Mr Worden. Thank you for doing this AMA!
I am a huge space fan and I'd like to ask you a few questions.
As I have read, you never did an EVA on the moon, but orbited the moon. Can you describe the feeling of orbiting another planet, looking not just at the Moon, but also at the Earth. Do you remember any special thoughts you had?
What do you think of the technological advancements of SpaceX and their construction of reusable rockets, and their plans to go to Mars?
What would you say to all the young people around the world who loves space and aspire to make a future career in space exploration, through the means of engineering, piloting, physics, chemistry, biology and/or other ways to contribute to the research for future space travel and exploration?
Sincerely, a Swedish Masters of Computer Science and Engineering student.
I remember vividly looking every 2 hours for Earth-rise over the Lunar horizon. The moon was a very cold, and deadly place, but the Earth was beautiful in the colors and the atmosphere.
Space-X is not the only commercial company that is flying into space. There is Boeing and Orbital/ATK. In the next few years, we will see lots of commercial launches into space, however they will probably be limited to Earths orbit, because the requirements are too great to go into deep space. Space-X is talking about going to Mars, but that remains to be seen.
I am a firm believer that any young person working their way through college should take whatever they want, but do very well with it. In the future there will be positions for all disciplines but those who study STEM programs will be in the fore-front.
The Apollo 12 launch was infamous for having been struck by lightning during a launch. Was there any talk before that happened as to what being struck by lightning before or during launch would do to a spacecraft?
No I dont remember any talk about that, however the guidance system that directed the launch vehicle into orbit was insulated from any lightening strike, and they went into orbit just fine.
What realizations occur when looking at our planet from the outside? Were you ever worried about not making it back?
You realize that we really arent as important as we think we are. We are a VERY small part of the universe and we need to keep in mind that Earth is a finite planet.
No, I was never worried about that. As a matter of fact, before I launched, I made a deal with myself that that did not make any difference.
Al, so glad you're doings this! Two questions for you:
How long did you have to train for?
What do you think about all the technological advancements in space travel, and where do you think space travel will be in the future?
My training for Apollo 15 was 3 years, in which i spent an average of 70 hours a week. It's not easy. It takes a lot of concentration and discipline. But you realize when youre in space, where you cant call up your local repair man, you better be prepared.
My feelings are there are no technological advances in space travel in the past 40 years. In fact, the system that is being designed to go to Mars, is really just an oversized Apollo.
How tired are you of hearing the words 'postal covers'? How long did the flack for that persist?
That was all 45 years ago. It's ancient history by now. I dont even think of it anymore. The flack persisted until I sued the US Govt to get the postal covers back, and at that time the US Govt realized they had made a mistake, and I got all the covers back in my possession.
Who are the unsung heroes of the Apollo program? Was there anyone who played a big role that history hasn't recorded very well?
I would say that maybe one of the unsung heroes was Werner Von Braun. He did get considerable amount of publicity, but he was the chief architect for the Apollo Program. And in-fact there were many, many that were critical to the program that no one knows about.
Hello, thanks for taking the time do this! What was the scariest part of the whole expierence?
There were no real scary parts. We were extremely well trained, and we had very competent controllers in Mission Control, so there weren't really any scary parts.
What didn't the simulations/flights/notes/training from Armstrong and the other Apollo pilots prepare you for for? In other words, what did you discover about piloting the Apollo 15 that you had to figure out on the fly, so to speak?
I would say the training did not come from Neil Armstrong, or any of the others. It came from our simulator trainers. They were the ones who had it all figured out. And that's where I got my training.
The only thing I did not learn from simulation, was the sense of motion, which a simulation could not prepare you for.
Did the lunar rover take up a lot of room/weight?
The lunar rover was stored in the lunar module. and yes it had weight, but that was all accounted for in planning.
I'm sure there have been many highlights in your life. Are there any instances that you still remember vividly ? perhaps being told you were going to the moon or being on the moon ?
The one event that sticks out in my mind is the day I got a call from Deke Slayton asking if I wanted to join them in Houston to be part of the space program.
Is there anything you still miss about space?
No, it's history, and I am now retired living the life of luxury.
How much would you enjoy decking Bart Sibrel?
Edit: Bart Sibrel, for you filthy casuals, is the moon hoax guy that Buzz punched.
Yes, I would enjoy it just as much as Buzz Aldrin did.
You did one of the first deep space walks, using 1971 technology? What was going through your mind as you left your craft to take on space?
I did THE first one. Nothing went through my mind except getting my next hand hold on the way out, and getting the film canister back to the command module.
You mission was, of course, dramatized in the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon", which showed you being trained in a sort of aerial geology by Farouk El-Baz. I heard you once say the plane they had you flying in (a Cessna, I think) wasn't accurate. Other than that, how accurate were they?
I have to say that that segment was not very accurate. I did not fly in a Cessna 172, I never flew Farouk El-Baz, but the theme of that part of the series was okay.
Do the films Gravity or The Right Stuff come anywhere near close to capturing the reality of space flight?
Both of those movies are a big joke. Gravity was so far out that it was like a cartoon. The Right Stuff, the book had the right idea, but the movie was not very realistic.
What was the most surprising/unexpected thing you saw on the Moon?
Back then, what did you think the Moon would be like by now? (i.e. space missions, etc.)
On the trip there and back, was there room to move around inside the capsule, or did you sit in the seat for 3 days?
I would say that the most suprising thing is that we actually found volcanic activity on the moon. It was ancient, but we did find it.
Not sure what that means. :(
There was some room to move around. The space craft was about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. So for the three of us, it was pretty tight.
What are some of your favorite aircraft you flew as a test pilot?
My favorite was the F-104. Which was a very high performance airplane even back in the 1960s. We used it to teach shuttle landings, and high altitude trajectories.
Hello! You mentioned we need to find another Earth-like planet.
When do you think we will even have the technology to make it 3.2 light years away?
I think it may be 1000 years. One of the problems we have as humans is that we are very impatient, and we want things solved tomorrow. However, to develop a propulsion system that can move us at a speed faster than the Speed of Light will take a long time. We as humans are very impatient, and we need to realize that our lifetimes are very short compared to universal time. It will happen but it might be a long time in the future.
What sort of preparation did you do to go to the moon?
do you think people that go the Antarctica do similar preparation?
Preparation to go to the moon was two-fold. We spent a year and a half learning how to fly there, and we spent a year and a half learning what to do when we got there. The preparation to make a lunar flight is not easy and takes a long time. You have to have a great sense of concentration and discipline to get ready.
The Antarctic program was and is very similar to the Lunar program. They do scientific research in a very hostile environment very similar to the Lunar surface.
Was being an Apollo astronaut like being a part of a fraternity? Did you all bond and keep in touch and go to each others weddings and things?
No, not really. To get into the Apollo program you had to be a rather aggressive individual which did not fit well with the fraternal mentality. Only after many years have we become a fraternal organization, and see each other occasionally.
What's your opinion about the actual state of space explorations, specifically having in mind the private-funded companies starting to develop their own business around it?
Can you describe the feeling of preparing for a mission and then going through it?
Already answered a similar question:
"Space-X is not the only commercial company that is flying into space. There is Boeing and Orbital/ATK. In the next few years, we will see lots of commercial launches into space, however they will probably be limited to Earths orbit, because the requirements are too great to go into deep space. Space-X is talking about going to Mars, but that remains to be seen."
Preparing for the mission was more difficult than making the flight. It's a little like studying for four years in college then graduating. There is a sense of freedom that you don't get in training, but all that training is necessary to make you comfortable during the flight.
What was the worst plane you ever flew, and what made it so bad? What was your favorite?
The worst plane I ever flew was a British Airplane called a Meteor. It was an airplane that was built at the end of WWII, and had none of the modern equipment that would be standard in planes today. It was a treacherous airplane in the landing pattern and had to be watched like a hawk.
"My favorite was the F-104. Which was a very high performance airplane even back in the 1960s. We used it to teach shuttle landings, and high altitude trajectories."
What did null G feel like? I imagine it as constant freefall.
Interesting use of the term "G". As you may know: there is no such thing as zero G. We are always under the influence of gravity. More properly called "free fall," and it was fun.
Your comment is right, it is free fall.
If you were put in charge of humanity expanding into space, what would your top 5 goals be for the next 50 years?
(Just for grins, lets pretend money and politics aren't an issue)
If we had the resources that would take to go further in space then the emphasis has to be on propulsion. That is the one limiting factor in deep space exploration. There is also the human physiology issue that we will have to contend with, but that problem is solvable. We know how to do that.
NASA, at the time, called your mission the most successful manned flight ever achieved. How much pressure was it to perform that well and how did it feel to achieve that?
We had the most ambitious scientific flight in the program. We completed all of the objectives for the flight plus more, and in fact the data is still being analyzed. We focused on the science we needed to do once we got to the moon and we realized we would never come back that way again, so we did everything.
I have heard a few Apollo astronauts talk about how lonely it felt on the moon. I've always thought it must be worse being alone in the command module. How did it feel for you?
I hate to tell you this but that was the best part of the flight for me. Consider being cooped up in a Volkswagen for four days with two other people, and I think you would feel the same way if they got out for three days. In addition, I was most happy on the back side of the moon, when I didn't have to talk to Houston.
Simply put; what does it feel like to walk in space?
(Thanks for doing this AMA!)
It's a little like swimming under water, but without the pressure of the water. It's a very free feeling except you have to be careful you are attached to something, because otherwise you could float away.
Hey, Mr. Worden! I'm wondering, how much physics and cosmology (if any of the latter) is necessary to be understood in order to be an astronaut?
It's very helpful to have a background in physics, because everything you do in space depends on Newton's laws. Cosmology you can learn so it's not essential.
Hello Mr. Worden,
My one question is, did it ever occur to you, while orbiting the moon solo that you may have to return home alone?
That launch off the lunar surface just looks like an accident waiting to happen.
Yes, I actually thought about that a lot. And in fact, I reminded those two guys on the surface, that I could go home by myself. Otherwise, no matter what trajectory they came off the moon, I would go get them, and if that meant we ran out of fuel, then that's the way the cookie crumbles.
Aside from physical, Are there mental preparations before you go to the moon?
No conscience mental preparation, but with long days of training and the simulations that we did our mental preparation was in fact completed by the time we launched.
Aliens, where are the aliens? Dark side of the moon?
Your guess is as good as mine. I have never seen a UFO, I have never met an alien, but I do absolutely believe that there is intelligent life out in the Universe. Probably 1000s of years advanced on our own civilization, but they have probably solved the problem of propulsion, and could be coming here to visit.
Have you ever seen a candidate for President like Donald Trump?
No, but political conditions of today require someone like Trump to set this country straight.