Al Worden circled the moon 74 times in 1971
By Joe Southern
It has been 45 years since men last went to the moon but that is about the change.
NASA and SpaceX, a private space company, have announced plans to start sending humans back to lunar orbit and possibly to the surface within two years.
That begs the question of what can be gained from going back.
“I think it might be very advantageous,” said retired Air Force Col. Al Worden, who was the command module pilot for Apollo 15, the fourth mission to land on the moon.
Although Worden orbited the moon while Jim Erwin and David Scott went roving on the surface, he does know a few things about getting there and back. He was in Sugar Land in April for the Eagle Scout ceremony for his grandson Danny Penczak, son of his daughter Alison and her husband Bill Penczak.
“Number one, it gets the country going again,” he said. “It gets people pretty excited.”
Beyond inspiring and energizing the country, he said the biggest advantage is technological.
“It’s not so much getting there as it is developing the technology to get there,” he said.
He said the spin-off technologies from the space race led to many huge advances and technology and labor-saving devices. He anticipates the same thing will happen as the technology is developed to send humans into deep space on long-duration flights in more modern spacecraft.
Worden also noted that the biggest difference between what SpaceX plans to do with tourists on its Dragon spacecraft-compared to what NASA did with Apollo- is control.
When he flew to the moon in 1971 aboard the Endeavour (Falcon was the lunar module), the three men aboard the spaceship had full control. SpaceX’s passengers would be going for a ride in a vehicle remotely operated from Earth.
“I’m a little nervous about this remote control stuff,” Worden said. “If things went wrong I don’t know what they would do.”
Worden, Irwin and Scott trained three years together for their mission.
“We knew our spacecraft. We knew what we had to do,” he said. “Any glitches we took care of in flight.”
The space tourists would still have to endure training and know how to operate basic systems on the ship, but compared to Apollo it will be a pleasure cruise.
“I worked most of the time. You’re totally engaged in the work you have to do,” he said.
A typical work day in space was 20 hours. “You don’t need a lot of sleep in space,” he said.
Despite his heavy work load, Worden managed memorable glimpses out the windows during his 74 orbits around the moon.
“From around the back side of the moon I saw the sun and the Earth rise,” he said.
Although it was Worden’s only spaceflight, he earned the distinction in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most isolated human being when he was 2,235 miles away from the nearest humans. He also conducted the first walk in deep space when, on the return to Earth, he went outside the spacecraft to retrieve film cassettes and cameras.
“You could see both the Earth and the moon at the same time,” he said.
Although the passengers on SpaceX’s Dragon will not walk in space or stroll on the moon – they’ll go around once on a free-return trajectory – Worden understands the desire to go.
“I can’t oppose what they’re doing,” he said.
Another person who supports returning to the moon is space historian Kenneth Zurek of Sugar Land.
“This is the proper step to do, no question about it. Mars is too far for us right now,” he said.
He agreed with Worden’s assessment of SpaceX’s tourism plan.
“It’s a very dangerous flight, very risky,” he said.
Zurek also feels sending people back to the moon will help energize and unite the country.
“People are excited about this,” he said, adding “this is putting adventure back into space.”