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Alfred Worden (Alfred Merrill Worden)

Alfred Worden

Alfred Worden

Alfred M. Worden, who orbited the moon for three solitary days in the summer of 1971, piloting the Apollo 15 command module and taking detailed pictures of the lunar surface as his fellow astronauts drove a rover far below, died March 17 or 18 at an assisted-living center in Sugar Land, Tex. He was 88.
His family announced the death in a statement, saying that he died overnight, although it was not clear precisely when. Mr. Worden had been treated for an infection and was recovering from a fall at home, said Francis French, who co-wrote Mr. Worden’s memoir.

Only 24 people have journeyed to the moon, and few spent as much time in quiet contemplation of its surface — and the universe beyond — as Mr. Worden, an Air Force officer who later ran for Congress, worked for aerospace companies and reflected on space travel in a children’s book and poetry collection.

A farm boy from Michigan, he graduated from West Point and became a jet pilot and flight instructor, training some of the men who would later join him as astronauts. While returning to Earth with Apollo 15, the fourth lunar landing mission, he became the first person to conduct a spacewalk in deep space, venturing outside for nearly 40 minutes at a distance of 196,000 miles from Earth.

“Now I know why I’m here,” Mr. Worden later said of his mission. “Not for a closer look at the moon, but to look back at our home, the Earth.”
Mr. Worden was joined for Apollo 15 by David Scott, spacecraft commander, and James B. Irwin, who piloted the lunar module. In a mission that marked a new focus on science for the Apollo program, his colleagues spent 67 hours on the lunar surface, collecting rocks and soil samples and using a four-wheeled “moon buggy” for the first time.

Mr. Worden remained aboard the command module, Endeavour, overseeing a suite of cameras and scientific instruments as he circled the moon in a cramped spacecraft he likened to a Volkswagen car. During his downtime, he simply looked out the window, awaiting the next “Earth rise” as he came around the moon’s far side.

“You just can’t imagine it,” he told NPR. “You can’t imagine that that thing sitting out there, that object, that planet, that ball is where we live.”

After his colleagues returned to the command module, Mr. Worden embarked on his planned spacewalk, a kind of deep-space ballet in which he removed two 80-pound film cassettes from outside the spacecraft. A Washington Post report said he appeared at times “to be standing on his head and doing cartwheels as he flipped over to return to the spacecraft cabin feet first.”

“You’re sort of floating out there in a vast nothingness,” Mr. Worden told Smithsonian magazine, “and the only thing you can see and touch and grab a hold of is the spacecraft. . . . I had trained so well that it didn’t take me any time to do what I had to do, and everything worked out okay, and when I was all done, I thought, ‘Gee, I wish I had found something so that I could have been out there a little longer.’ ”
Mr. Worden and his fellow astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and were greeted as national heroes, meeting with President Richard M. Nixon in the White House and delivering an address before Congress. But the astronauts never returned to space and were effectively forced out of the Apollo program after a controversy over a set of mementos — stamped envelopes — that they brought aboard Apollo 15.

Some of the envelopes were sold after the flight, and the astronauts were slated to receive $21,000 of the proceeds. Previous astronauts had arranged similar deals, Mr. Worden said, but he and his colleagues turned down the money amid an uproar over the sales. Mr. Worden said the money was intended to help fund his children’s education.

“We’re not the only flight that that happened on. It’s just that we were at a point in time where they needed to make a statement about it,” he told the television program “Good Morning Britain” in 2017.
It was one of many interviews in which the envelope issue returned to the fore, with Mr. Worden saying he far preferred to discuss the flight’s scientific impact or the way it had shaped his own life, inspiring him to take up poetry.
In one of his poems, he described a newfound perspective on his home planet:
“Earth: a distant memory seen in an instant of repose,/ crescent shaped, ethereal, beautiful,/ I wonder which part is home, but I know it doesn’t matter . . ./ the bond is there in my mind and memory;/ Earth: a small, bubbly balloon hanging delicately/ in the nothingness of space.”

The second of six children, Alfred Merrill Worden was born in Jackson, Mich., on Feb. 7, 1932. His family worked on a farm outside his town, although his father preferred tinkering with electronics and was a projectionist at the local movie theater.
Mr. Worden recalled in a NASA oral history that from age 12, “I basically ran the farm, did all the field work, milked the cows.” Deciding that this was “not what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” he secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He graduated in 1955 and joined the Air Force, believing it offered a faster track to promotions.

He was wrong about the promotions but fell in love with flying. Mr. Worden later studied as a test pilot in England and, in 1963, received a pair of master’s degrees in aeronautics and engineering from the University of Michigan, experiences that he credited with helping him land a spot in NASA’s 1966 astronaut class.

Mr. Worden was a member of the support crew for Apollo 9 and served as the command module backup pilot for Apollo 12. After Apollo 15, he held senior science positions at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., before retiring in 1975.
In his memoir, “Falling to Earth” (2011), Mr. Worden recalled contacting the children’s television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” shortly before his flight, hoping to teach children about space travel. He went on to appear in several episodes with host Fred Rogers, showed kids a moon rock and eating “space food” on-air.

“It was so outside of what most astronauts did, many thought I was crazy,” Mr. Worden wrote. “Astronauts liked to think they were superjocks who hunted, fished, drank, and chased girls. We didn’t do kiddies’ shows. . . . But I loved the final result. . . . Most importantly, kids loved it.”

In 1974 Mr. Worden published his children’s book, “I Want to Know about a Flight to the Moon,” and his poetry collection, “Hello Earth: Greetings From Endeavour.”
“The poems are about as good as you might expect from a pilot,” Mr. Worden wrote in his memoir. “I hope I did a better job than a poet would if asked to fly a jet with no training. And on those long nights when I couldn’t sleep, the writing helped me. It was my own personal, emotional debriefing.”

Mr. Worden said that long after he orbited the moon, he was occasionally reminded of the “brief glimpse into infinity” he experienced while staring into the cosmos on the moon’s far side. “I still have lingering questions about what I experienced,” he wrote at the close of his memoir. “The answers won’t come in my lifetime. That will be your job.
“Try it, sometime. Some day all of us who journeyed to the moon will be gone. Take a walk on a summer night, look up at the moon, and think of us. A part of us is still there and always will be.”

Born

  • February, 07, 1932
  • Jackson
  • Michigan

Died

  • March, 18, 2020
  • Sugar Land
  • Texas

Cause of Death

  • Stroke

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