To see Earth and Moon in a single glance
An interview with Apollo 15 Astronaut Al Worden, on the 45th anniversary of his epic voyage to the Moon.
“I curved around the moon to where no sunlight or Earthshine could reach me. The moon was a deep, solid circle of blackness, and I could only tell where it began by where the stars cut off. In the dark and quiet, I felt like a bird of the night, silently gliding and falling around the moon, never touching. I turned the cabin lights off. There was no end to the stars.
I could see tens, perhaps hundreds of times more stars than the clearest, darkest night on Earth. With no atmosphere to blur their light, I could see them all to the limits of my eyesight. There were so many, I could no longer find constellations. My vision was filled with a blaze of starlight.
Unlike some other astronauts who had time only for hurried glances, I had many hours, spread over many days, to look at this awe-inspiring view and think about what it meant. There was more to the universe than I had ever imagined.”
Al Worden is an engineer, pilot, poet and educator. Al served as the Command Module Pilot on the Apollo 15 science mission to the Moon and became the world’s first interplanetary spacewalker. Al’s autobiography is Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon.
Avi Solomon: What was the secret sauce to being an Apollo Astronaut?
Al Worden: I don’t know if there was a secret sauce. To get into the Apollo program it was a question all the requirements that you met, like academics, flying time and being a test pilot. Once in the program, dedication to learning everything you could, doing everything right and not playing office politics were the important things, as far as I was concerned. I was an engineer by training and a test pilot by vocation and I very quickly got into projects that required those particular skills.
Everyone who was in the program was very individualistic. Very hard-driving people that were going to grab all the training they could get, and they had to do everything on their own. If it may not have been for the space program, it could have been for other things like being a test pilot in the Air Force. But once they got assigned to a mission crew then they molded themselves into a team of three people to go to the Moon.
Once in the program we all had to apply ourselves hard to all the things we had to learn about space, how to navigate and how to fly a spacecraft. In my particular crew we learned an awful lot of geology.
It was a total dedication to the job, and the ability and willingness to work long, hard hours to amass all of the knowledge you need to be able to make the flight.
Avi: What made the Apollo program a success?
Al: Back in the late sixties and early seventies there was no bureaucracy at NASA. We had a goal of getting to and back from the Moon and everybody worked to it. Everybody was focused on the goal and nobody was trying to protect their job — they were all trying hard to get the job done even beyond the highest standards, no matter how “small” their role in the program. Most of the people working in the Apollo program were young, with a average age of 28, and that helped a lot in overcoming all sorts of engineering challenges, because they did not “know” that something was impossible.
We also had a fantastic design advantage in Wernher von Braun and his team that put together the Saturn V launch vehicle and the Apollo spacecraft. The architecture of how you go to and land on the Moon with the lunar module was all pretty much worked out years before we started making the flights, but all that came together very well.
So it was a lot of hard work, some excellent engineering and some very dedicated management people who were only focused on getting people to the Moon and back safely. A lot of tough decisions were made, and most of them were right because we had very little trouble in getting six flights to land on the Moon.
Avi: What role did simulations play in your training?
Al: There’s a great difference between flying an airplane and flying a spacecraft. In an airplane you can go up with an instructor and he can show you all the things that an airplane can do and he coaches you through how to fly an airplane, in the real thing. With a spacecraft you don’t have that ability to just get in and fly that thing around a little bit, so you’ve got to do it in a simulator. Simulation is the only way you can learn how to really fly that thing. Our simulator was absolutely perfect. It did everything that we would see in flight: all the visuals, all the noise, the mechanicals, the computer, the navigation; everything in the simulator worked exactly like it would in the flight. And it really trained us for the flight because once we were in the flight it was sort of like doing the simulation all over again.
Avi: What made the Saturn V so special?
Al: The Saturn V was an absolutely wondrous machine: it made 7.5 million pounds of thrust just to get itself off the ground. It’s the largest machine that’s ever been built. It was designed from the ground up by the people at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama where Wernher von Braun oversaw the design and the buildup of the Saturn V.
It was early in the space business and all the engines on the Saturn V were liquid fuel engines. Liquid fuel engines are more complicated than solid boosters but they have some attributes that solids don’t have. In fact, we could start and stop some of the liquid engines in space, which you can’t do with a solid engine. The Saturn V engines also had an attribute called center line thrust: the engines were stacked close enough together at the base of the launch vehicle so that if you lost one the others could tilt slightly to take over for that one engine. As a matter of fact on one of the flights they lost the center engine and they just kept on going, it just took them a little longer to get into orbit but everything was fine. With solid boosters that’s pretty tough to do because if you lose one you have to lose all of them.
There are three Saturn Vs that are still around on display. When I go to the Kennedy Saturn V Center at the Cape and look at that huge rocket sitting there, I think that a thousand years from now, it’s going to be really, really something for people to walk through that building and see what we were able to do back in the 1960s.
Avi: What was the Command Module Pilot’s role in the mission?
Al: In terms of your position in a crew, being a mission commander, of course, is the ultimate role. But the second most important person is the Command Module Pilot, because he flies the spacecraft all the way out to the Moon, stays in lunar orbit by himself, then picks up and flies everyone all the way back home.
The Lunar Module Pilot never flew anything. He was just the systems engineer who went along for the ride. The media has made the Lunar Module Pilots something that they never were.
Command Module Pilots were in line to become their own mission commanders on later flights, and everyone in the know appreciated that. If all had gone well and Apollo 18, 19 and 20 had not been cancelled, I would probably have gotten to chose and command my own crew and land on the Moon on one of them. But that was not to be. All those missions were paid for and had flight-ready hardware and crew, but the NASA management got cold feet. The said they needed to divert money to the Shuttle program but I think they really were afraid of losing a crew on one of those remaining missions.
Avi: You spent a lot of time circling the Moon alone.
Al: Well, it was kind of a wonderful time for me Avi! I was trained as a single-seat fighter pilot to begin with, so I like to be in a flying machine by myself. On my flight I was in the Command Module for three days in orbit while Dave Scott and Jim Irwin were on the surface. Lots of people think it’s pretty lonely up there but I have to admit that I wasn’t really very lonely after flying with those two guys in a spacecraft about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle! I was glad to get rid of them for a while, so it was very comfortable for me.
During those three days I was really busy, for like 20 hours a day, doing all the experiments and the science that were called for in the flight plan. I enjoyed looking at the Moon’s surface and describing features which Dr. Farouk El-Baz, my lunar geology instructor, had worked out with me before the flight. I was very busy not only doing visual observations but also mapping the Moon by taking high resolution pictures of the lunar surface. I did a lot of photography work on both the Moon and other astronomical features like the Solar Corona, Zodiacal Light and the Milky Way.
My attitude was: “We’re only going to be here once; somebody might come back, but it won’t be me. So, I have to do everything I can while I’m here. I can always catch up with sleep later, but I can’t redo what I need to do while I’m here if I don’t do it now”.
Our whole crew was very aggressive about doing all the science that we had to do, and that’s why we named our Command Module “Endeavour”, after James Cook’s flagship on the first ever scientific voyage to the south Pacific, because ours was the first true scientific mission to the Moon.
The flight plan was filled to the brim with science experiments that had to be done. And we got lots and lots of requests from scientists all over the world: “Would you do this? Would you do that? Would you do something else?”. And if we could find a place in the flight plan to do it, we added it and we did it. That’s why everyone really recognized Apollo 15 as the best scientific flight in the program.
In terms of science, our landing site was something different, too. All the flights before ours had landed in a band about plus or minus ten degrees from the lunar equator. And that’s because we knew what the gravitational constants were there.
Our flight landed 27 degrees north, and we had no idea what the gravitational mass constants were going to do to us. So, it was a big gamble. That was the first time that anybody had landed that far away from the lunar equator. And Dave and Jim had to fly the lunar module over Mount Hadley to get down to the landing site, which was another big gamble.
Avi: What’s the view from the far side of the Moon?
Al: Avi, there are two things that are important to understand: there’s the far side of the Moon and then there’s the dark side of the Moon. They are two different things. The far side is the side away from the Earth and the dark side is the side away from the Sun. On our flight the Moon was about half lit, so there was about half a Moon.
So there was a little space around the far side of the Moon where I was shadowed from both the Earth and the Sun and that was pretty amazing. I could see more stars than I could possibly imagine. It really makes you wonder about our place in the Universe and what we’re all about. When you see that many stars out there you realize that those are really suns and those suns could have planets around them and all that kind of stuff.
The sky is just awash with stars when you’re on the far side of the Moon, and you don’t have any sunlight to cut down on the lower intensity, dimmer stars. You see them all, and it’s all just a sheet of white.
As you know, we’re part of the Milky Way galaxy and we look at it sideways, we look through it. I saw so many stars looking out that it was very hard to make out anything like a Milky Way. In fact, there were so many stars that I had some difficulty finding any of the 37 brighter stars we used as navigation guide stars because they were so bathed in starlight from all the other stars around them.
Avi: So, for example, you would try and find Sirius and…
Al: …and it would be very difficult to find. And there were times when I had to let the guidance computer drive the sextant to the star that I wanted to use for navigation because I had difficulty finding it with all the other stars out there that just washed everything out.
I actually had to use the computer in reverse and use it to find a star, whereas, normally, you do your sightings on a guide star and another star, and then let the computer calculate it out. The navigation system onboard had me close enough to where I was supposed to be that the computer had no trouble picking out the star. Luckily, I had not drifted far off at all.
But probably the most spectacular part of going to the far side of the Moon was coming around it and seeing the Earth come up. Our home planet is a pretty amazing place. It is the only planet in the Solar System that has all of the ingredients we need for life. It has water, it has land, it has an atmosphere and so it’s a pretty gorgeous thing to look at from out there. And so no matter what I was doing, when I came around the side of the Moon and the Earth was rising over the lunar surface, I got to a window to watch it.
Avi: That’s when you took a photo of the crescent Earth.
Al: Yes, it’s my favorite photo from the mission. The Sun was around behind the Earth, and that’s why you see a crescent. The crescent part of the Earth you see in the photo is covered with clouds.
The photo is actually a composite I made for the cover of my book of poetry. I put together two frames: one was looking down more at the Moon, and the other was looking more at the crescent Earth. I wanted a tall and narrow picture showing the whole thing, and that’s what you’re looking at.
Avi: It kind of reverses the perceptions of Earth versus the Moon.
Al: It’s an interesting picture in a way. We’ve seen lots of pictures of Earthrise. Apollo 8, of course, had the one that everybody thinks about. But a crescent Earthrise is a very different look at the Earth. The reason it’s kind of important is that it reminds you— as you’re looking at that picture and trying to figure out what’s there, that the Earth, seen from the Moon, goes through the same phases that the Moon does seen from the Earth.
Avi: It makes you relate more deeply to Earth as a solar body.
Al: I think so, too, because when you see a crescent, it is caused by the angle of the Sun at the time you looked at it. So, it’s not just some artificial thing out there, it’s a real, living Earth that goes around the Sun, just as the Moon goes around the Earth. If you stayed on the near side of the Moon for 28 days, you’d see the Earth in all of its phases.
Avi: What it implies is that we don’t have a really good grasp of the relationship of all the bodies in the Solar System or even our relation to the Sun, which we see every day.
Al: I agree. I don’t think we truly understand the scale and scope of the Solar System. The Sun is 1.3 million times bigger than the Earth. It’s a pretty huge object. But what’s interesting is that it’s a very small sun! Compared to other stars that the astronomers are now finding, it’s a pretty small body.
Avi: So, what hope do we have of appreciating the scale of the universe when we can’t even appreciate the scale of the Sun in relationship to the Earth?
Al: That’s a good question. I don’t think we do appreciate the scale that we’re talking about. And then we talk about going to Mars, and that’s a six-month trip to get there. And that’s still our own puny little Solar System. We don’t have a good concept of infinity, if it exists. I’ve developed the attitude that there’s no beginning or end of time and there’s no such thing as infinity because everything just keeps going on and on.
I think the universe has always been here. The further we go out in the universe, we’re just going to keep on seeing more stars out there. Just in the Milky Way galaxy, there are a couple of hundred billion stars and there are a couple of hundred billion galaxies out there, and that’s only the ones that we can see right now. These numbers boggle your mind. So, to me, the universe is endless, and time is endless.
After seeing the universe the way I did, in the darkness of the far side of the Moon, I just feel that we’re pretty limited in what we can do right now. But I truly believe that as we develop more capability — the Hubble’s up there now; the Webb telescope will be going up in a while — we’re going to find out more and more. I would love it if they would put a big observatory on the far side of the Moon. That would be a perfect place for it. No atmosphere; 14 days you’re in complete darkness. It would have an utterly fantastic view.
If we’re going to find some planet that’s livable, then we’ll be going 4.3 light years atleast. So, we’re going to go significantly further than just Mars. Going to Mars is a good step insofar as it will allow us to develop techniques to go to the stars. I think it’s a foregone conclusion that we’re going to have to go out there someday.
Avi: So what advice would you give a future Martian astronaut looking back at the Earth as a star in the sky?
Al: Earth would be very small and hard to see from Mars. A little like Mars is from here. I think the important thing is to remember that it is home. I used to visualize the Earth in my mind and call up scenes from around my home. It would help to reduce the thought of the tremendous distance between Mars and Earth.
Avi: There’s been some interesting news regarding interstellar propulsion recently. At least some people are trying.
Al: The secret to that is going to be in the propulsion system. I think we can pretty much handle everything else. But we don’t have the propulsion figured out yet. Chemical propulsion will never get us where we want to go. The problem with us humans is that we’re pretty impatient. We like to have something that we dream up and see it happen within our lifetimes. We don’t really think much in longer terms. We’re developing new capabilities and procedures over time. We’re developing new propulsion systems. And all this kind of stuff, when it comes to fruition, might allow us to go to that planet which is 4.3 light years away. But that means we have to develop a propulsion system that’s going to take us out there pretty close to the speed of light. It might take a thousand years to develop, but Star Trek will be real then.
Back in the ’30s and the ’40s, we had a thing called the sound barrier, and nobody thought you could go through it. All the aeronautical academics were convinced that you could not break it. Well, Chuck Yeager did just that in 1947 in an X-1. So, there goes that theory down the drain. Everyone had to go back and rethink all the old ideas about the sound barrier. It was a paradigm change.
Now, to go into interstellar space, we’ve got a thing called Einstein’s theory of relativity. Well, the thing about Einstein’s theory of relativity is that when you get right down to the final equation, it all gets screwed up because in that equation is the square root of a minus one. Now, we don’t know how to handle the square root of a minus one. In our terminology, that’s kind of a imaginary number that you can’t get to, we don’t know how to deal with it yet.
What I’m saying is that within a thousand years or so, we’ll have that figured out, and we’ll know how to go faster than the speed of light. And that would make it very easy for us to get where we want to go.
Avi: Did you have this scope of interstellar travel before you went on your flight, or was it your personal experience of infinity on the flight that prompted it?
Al: When I was on the flight, it was just, “Let’s go to the Moon and come back” and that was it. It’s all things that I have thought about and read about and worried about since the flight. There was one book in particular I read that I think is very important: The Fourth Kingdom written by William Sauber, an engineer who worked for Dow Chemical. His thesis was that all living things on Earth have a primary imperative of making sure that their species survives. You can apply that to anything: grass, trees, plants, animals, humans. Everything that’s living, that’s organic, has a mechanism for doing that. All species have the same imperative, the same drive.
He also talks about the symbiology between man and machine. The machine protects the humans, keeps them alive, and the humans in the machine direct the machine to go where they want. Like seeds that blow in the wind and go to different places and land and sprout and grow new seeds. Humans are the same way. We are growing up here on Earth, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to go somewhere else.
There’s a genetic drive that humans have that says the only way we can survive as a species is to go someplace else when the time is right, which means we have to develop a capability to go somewhere, which means it’s a long-term program, and our first step was going to the Moon. And the next step will be going to Mars. And the step after that will be to keep going somewhere else until we develop capabilities to go to the next solar system. Spreading around our Solar System will help, but we ultimately have to go to a different star.
And if you think that’s possible in a thousand years or even a hundred thousand years, look at the scale of universal time. The Earth is 5.4 billion years old, as the Solar System is. The current estimates are that the Sun will burn out all its hydrogen in about another five billion years. What are we going to do then? Well, five billion years from now, if we don’t have a way of going somewhere else, we really missed the boat!
It goes back to where the Pacific Islanders started. They’re all at one place, and some natural disaster occurred, and they got in their rafts and went to the next island. And the same thing repeated itself until they had populated the whole South Pacific. And I see that as a way that people will populate habitable planets in the universe. In fact, it maybe already have happened. Maybe that’s how we got here.
If we’re going to develop a capability to go somewhere else, don’t tell me that a million years ago there wasn’t another species like ours that had the same problem; they needed to go somewhere, and they found that Earth was a great place to live, and they sent people here.
Avi: Maybe we forgot that we came here from somewhere else.
Al: I don’t think we forgot. Most “conservative” scientists that are around today don’t like to think about somebody coming here from somewhere else and starting our civilization. But many of our ancient religious texts from totally different cultures describe exactly that. Just go and read Ezekiel.
Avi: It’s like the lunar module landing.
Al: Ezekiel’s wheel came down from the sky and landed. There was a NASA engineer named Josef Blumrich at Huntsville who did an analysis of Ezekiel, and he came to the conclusion that the object that Ezekiel saw was very much like our lunar module.
Avi: Yes, there’s a circle, there’s fire.
Al: And it had propellers on each of the legs to give it lift. It was also powered by something that we can’t even imagine. So, when it took off, the legs folded up around the vehicle and the main engine fired up and off it went into Space. Ezekiel was a simple goat herder who saw all this stuff and wrote down what he saw, it was pretty miraculous to him. I don’t know how true his account is, but it’s probable.
Avi: Coming back to your lunar voyage, the other amazing thing you saw was on your deep space Extra Vehicular Activity.
Al: Yes, it was the first space walk in deep Space. And as a matter of fact I was further out from Earth than any of the other Apollo deep space EVAs. We were a little about 30,000 miles this side of the Moon when I did that.
It was kind of unique because, as you know, when the spacecraft comes back from the Moon it doesn’t come straight back — it loops around. It makes a big arcing path to get back to Earth because of the relative motions of the Moon and the Earth. So we were quite off the center-line of the Moon and the Earth and I could see both of them at the same time.
I was able to look around outside on my third trip out of the Command Module hatch during the EVA. I’d gone out and collected the panoramic camera film canister and took that back to the hatch. Then I went back out and got the high resolution mapping camera cassette and took it back in. I went back out a third time, to where I could put my foot in the foot restraints and stand up on the outside of the service module clear at it’s back end. And from that standpoint I had a spectacular view looking around, especially when you’re standing in the inside of a spacesuit with a bubble helmet.
I could take my thumb and place it over the Earth and cover the Earth when I was out there. It was that small. It was pretty much like looking at the Moon from the Earth.
Of course, I wasn’t looking at the Sun, so, the sky was very black. But I could turn my head a little bit and see the Moon, and turn my head the other way a little bit and see the Earth, which is an unbelievable place to be.
I could see the Moon’s curvature very plainly. You look at the Moon and there’s nothing there except craters and ancient lava flows and that kind of thing, and then you look at the Earth and it’s very dynamic, it’s got cloud cover and oceans and life. The difference between the two is pretty dramatic.
Jim Irwin was standing in the hatch at the time watching me and making sure that everything was OK. The Moon was behind him. In fact, there’s a painting at the Smithsonian that Pierre Mion did of my EVA, since I wasn’t allowed to take a camera out. It shows Jim Irwin standing in the hatch with the Moon behind him and as I was reflected in his visor.
Avi: Even if you had a camera would you have been able to capture the Earth and the Moon together?
Al: No, I couldn’t do that because they were too far apart for that but that really wasn’t the purpose. I wanted to take a camera out to photograph the outside of the Service Module and I found some things where photographs would have been helpful. There was some scorching from the reaction control system jets. The mapping camera had stuck out and wouldn’t retract. Pictures of all of that stuff would have been useful for the engineers back in Houston.
Avi: So is this what inspired you to write a book of poetry?
Al: You know what happened? When we got back from the flight we went into two weeks of debriefing. We were pretty exhausted from the flight and we spent all day long from early morning to the evening debriefing. When I’d get home I’d just be totally exhausted and I couldn’t go to sleep. So I’d sit in my living room with a pad of paper and a pencil and just start writing things and when I looked at it later it was just kind of like poetry so I rearranged it a little bit and the poetry came out. Poetry is kind of a shorthand for the feelings and the thought processes that you’re going through and that’s kind of what came out on the paper so that’s what ended up as the book of poetry.
Avi: It’s really a very personal piece of work. You talk there about “rebirth at thirty-nine”.
Al: Yes. That was on the EVA. I had the thought that it’s just like being born because you’re getting out of the spacecraft out into the world on your own. I was reborn at thirty-nine because that EVA did that for me. I had that feeling of rebirth going outside. A whole new perspective on everything.
Avi: One of your poems ends with “God made it all”.
Al: Well, that’s the kind of feeling you get. And that really doesn’t answer the question of what you think God is. But when you look at the universe out there and you see all those billions of stars and you see they’re all arranged in galaxies, and the galaxies break down into stars and some of those stars even further break down into planetary systems, you say to yourself— man, there is an organization to this universe that we just can’t comprehend.
There had to be something, somewhere, somehow that made this all happen. In my mind it just didn’t spring out of nothing. How better do you describe it? You have to say that there’s some other force, some other power, whether you call it God or whatever you want to name it. Something somewhere had to work to put all this together in the consistency of what we see of the universe.
Avi: That’s probably why many of the Apollo astronauts had a more religious or spiritual turn in their lives after they returned from the Moon?
Al: I suspect so. It’s interesting what happened to the guys once they made their flight. Some guys like Pete Conrad said “that’s just another flight”. Several of the guys when they came back became quite religious. I think being away from Earth that far and looking back at Earth had a big influence on them. Because we live in the only planet we know of that’s habitable and something had to make that happen.
Jim Irwin said he felt the presence of God on the Moon. Jim founded the High Flight foundation and he went all over the world giving testimony for Christian fellowship organizations after the flight. Other guys like Ed Mitchell got into psychic phenomena because of the flight. He was already interested in it but he focused his attention on it after the flight.
Avi: Who is Dee O’Hara?
Al: Dee O’Hara is one of God’s chosen people, let me tell you. I wrote a poem about her. She is my dear friend, has been for 45 years, and we e-mail back and forth all the time.
Dee was the NASA astronaut flight nurse throughout the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs. If you had something wrong with you, you went to her first. Because if you went to a flight surgeon, he always had the capability of grounding you as a pilot. She was very good to the guys. You could trust her and confide in her. She was so close to all the guys, she was like a third arm for all of us.
After my Moon flight I moved out to work at Ames Research Center in California. I found out that Dee was unhappy in Houston, so I arranged for her to come out for an interview, and she got a position there. They had a research program that was perfect for her. They were doing bed rest studies, the idea being that if you put somebody in a bed, and they have to lie horizontally for two weeks, the same kind of things happen to them that would happen in a space flight of the same duration, like loss of bone density and cardiovascular changes. They found some parallels between bed rest study and actual in-flight stuff. That was the beginning of a human physiology program, where we’re trying to figure out how to keep people healthy and alive in long-term space flight. It all started with those bed rest studies, and Dee was the one that took care of that.
Avi: Can you tell us a bit about Farouk El-Baz?
Al: Farouk was the lunar geology instructor for all the Apollo missions. He’s a phenomenal guy and still a good friend. I just got an e-mail from him day before yesterday. He’s now a curator of space artifacts at Boston College. Farouk was the one who came up with the name for our spacecraft. We’d gone through lots and lots of names, and none of them were any good. Farouk came across a children’s book on exploration, and when he showed us the name “Endeavour”, we all said right away, “That’s what it’s got to be.” It was a no-brainer once we saw it, since “Endeavour” was the flagship of Captain Cook’s voyage of scientific exploration to the South Pacific in 1779.
Avi: How did Farouk teach you lunar orbital geology?
Al: Farouk would lay out a map of the Moon with our trajectory on it. And we would pick out all the features, the craters, the lava flows and meteor impacts along the trajectory. And we would go over them hour after hour until I could describe them from a map view so that when I flew over them for real, I could do an intelligent analysis of what was there.
Avi: Why did you contact Fred Rogers before your flight?
Al: I became aware that children under 16 were not allowed to come to the Cape to see a launch. It was only for adults. I didn’t think that was right, because I thought a launch and the whole space program was really more for kids than it was for adults. So I called Sesame Street but we couldn’t make it work.
Then I called Fred, and he was absolutely delighted. In one phone call, he had the whole thing arranged. I never knew him before, but I liked the way we talked on the phone. He came down the weekend before I went into quarantine, and we did a whole special show just on the pre-launch stuff. And then I did ten more shows with him back in Pittsburgh after I returned from the Moon.
Avi: Which is how the Pope recognized you on your visit to the Vatican!
Al: Yes, that was Pope Paul VI. He was a little short guy. I had to look down at him. He was a warm, friendly and a very nice man. I think he did see the show, because he looked at me and said, “I think I know you.” And I said, “The Pope knows me? I’m an Episcopalian. How could you know me?” He never did tell me. But I figured out later from something that some of the people around him had said, that he had, by chance, watched one of the Fred Rogers shows that I had done!
Avi: On the way back from the Moon, you had an interesting technique to navigate to Earth…
Al: I did all the navigation on the way back home, using a sextant. You get your correct attitude by doing star sightings, you get two stars, and you force them together, and then the computer calculates the angle. Anyway, then you have to do an Earth, horizon and star sighting to find your place in the Earth-Moon system, and the angle is critical to that. Well, the problem is that the atmosphere is 50 miles thick. So, if you just do a sighting on the whole atmosphere, you could be off by 50 miles, which could probably kill you when you come back.
So, what I had to do was find a color band in the horizon, in the atmosphere. See, the atmosphere is a rainbow, just like you see on a rainy day. And I found that the one I could pick quickly and easily was the blue band.
So, I used the blue band as the Earth’s horizon, and then I’d pick a star and calculate that angle and do three or four of those sightings. The computer, then, would calculate where I was in the Earth Moon system, how far away from Earth I was.
Avi: Did you ever get emotional when you looked through the sextant at the atmosphere?
Al: No Avi, I was too damn busy. There’s no place for emotion up there. You get that after you come back.
Avi: Do you still have the same intensity of feeling when you remember your Apollo experiences now?
Al: You remember what it was, but the sharp edges of the remembrances get filed off after a while. Not quite the same intensity. In fact I look at the Moon at night and I say — hmm, that’s kind of neat because I’ve seen it up close. I’ll tell you what it’s a little like. Through all the training and all the simulation you get so immersed in the project that you don’t really look at anything else for the time you’re in training. It’s just so all consuming. And when you come back you go through two weeks of debriefing and then you’re let out into the world.
It’s a little like going to a movie, and you get immersed in the movie and then when the movie’s over you walk out on the street, cars are going by, people are walking and talking and doing their thing. And you’re back in the real world again. And you say Gee, that was kind of an interesting little episode in my life, I watched that movie and got totally involved in it but here I am back in the real world. It’s kind of like that after you make a lunar flight.
Avi: How do you approach life now?
Al: In the first place, I’m not a person that gets down. I don’t get depressed. I have a very positive view of life. I’m very active. I like to play golf. I like my lake. I will be getting my boat in, in a week. And I like to go out and give talks to people. I do a lot of trips around the States and Europe giving talks. I work hard, and I like to have fun, but most of all, I just love people.
And I think all that is motivation that keeps me maybe younger than my age. Most people look at me, and they say, “How old are you.” And I tell them, and they say, “Oh, you can’t be that old.” My doctor says I’m going to live to be 114, but I think he’s crazy. There’s no way I’m going to live that long.
I think a positive attitude is the most important thing a person can have. Once you start getting discouraged, down or disappointed about something, that’s the downward trend, and I refuse to do that. I’m a very positive person. Usually I play golf when I can. Last week I shot my age, which was absolutely fantastic for me.
Avi: Thank you, that’s very inspiring. There go all my excuses now!
Al: No more excuses, Avi!
Avi: Thank you so much, Al. It’s been a honor and a privilege talking to you.
Al: It’s a privilege for me, too, Avi.