Saturday, September 20, 2014

Meeting a Man Who Went to the Moon and Back

On September 16 2014, former NASA astronaut and Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot, Al Worden, gave a lecture in Limerick IT's Millenium Theatre in Limerick City.

The lecture was organised as part of the Share Learn Inspire event in which Worden gave fascinating insights into his early career as an Air Force pilot, as well as his experiences on his voyage to the Moon and back in 1971. The stage was set for a magnificent night, and I think I speak for everyone in attendance in saying that we got value for money for sure!

The doors of the Millenium Theatre in LIT's state of the art campus opened at 6:45 p.m. In an effort to make the most out of this Apollo 15 Astronaut Experience, I arrived there pretty early with my father so that I could get the opportunity to shake the hand and meet the man who guided the Apollo 15 Command Module to the Moon and back.

I had only ever met one astronaut before- when I was lucky enough to interview ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli in Dublin three years ago. However, for some reason, this encounter felt that bit different. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was about to have my picture taken with a man who spent three days orbiting the Moon by himself, and the first man conduct a spacewalk, or Extra-Vehicular Activity(EVA) on the journey home from the Moon, forty three years ago. Either way I have to admit I was kind of nervous!

However, these nerves were soon put to rest when Al greeted me and my dad with a great big smile and a handshake- how cool was that! So we had our photos taken. Al was wearing a suit and tie, with the NASA Astronaut Pin stuck onto his blazer. And here I was, wearing a black sports jacket with a space shuttle mission patch stuck onto the chest. In an effort to look as much like a wannabe astronaut as possible, I also brought along my lucky NASA lapel pin for the added touch!

Apollo 15 CMP Al Worden and I before the lecture.

Before the rest of the audience showed up and things got busy, I went back over to Al to ask him a question. At the moment there are divided opinions regarding the next move NASA will take in its efforts to some day fulfill the goal of landing a man on Mars. I asked if he thought going back to the Moon to practice things such as landing, rendezvous and docking, all key elements of a journey to another heavenly body, would be a good idea. He looked up at me, smiled and slowly shook his head. What seemed like a good idea to me, didn't seem like such a good idea to him.

"I think the Moon is nearly acting as an obstacle on our route to Mars", he told me.

I then asked if he thought the International Space Station was providing a sufficient platform that would allow us to take the next step and explore other planets in our solar system. This time thankfully, he agreed! He said the best thing we could do is to turn the space station from the orbiting laboratory it is today, into an inter-planetary gas station, which would certainly make things a whole lot easier for spacecraft making the long journey to the red planet in years to come.

It was fast approaching eight o'clock, and it was time to take our seats.

The lecture kicked off with a short speech from Paul Ryan, founder of the Apollo 15 Experience, and without whom this evening would not have been possible. Paul introduced Dr Norah Patten, Communications and Outreach Manager with the Irish Centre for Composites Research. Norah told us about the links between Ireland and science on the ISS. We learned of the St Nessan's community college in Limerick, and their experiment which flew to the station earlier this year aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo craft. The experiment examined the effects of microgravity on reinforced concrete using Irish Cement.

Now for the main event- a speech from Al Worden, Apollo 15 CMP.

Al began by saying what a privilege it was for him to be invited to Ireland, and how impressed he was with the places he had visited during his tour of Limerick.

Worden visiting local schools. credit:

Worden described his training as a test pilot, in particular at the Empire Test Pilot's School in Farnborough, England and how it gave him a great launch pad that enabled him to join the astronaut corps in 1966. Al made an effort to get the youngsters in the audience to dream big, by telling them that when he was a kid growing up, there were no such thing as astronauts!

He moved on to describe his voyage into space as the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 15, as well as all the hardships, training, and funny stories that went along with it. He lauded Apollo 15 as man's most daring mission to the Moon, and told his experiences about his own spacewalk to retrieve film from a camera that he got to do while on the way home from the Moon.

He joked that while he was alone in lunar orbit, mission commander Dave Scott and Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin explored the surface below, he though about leaving them behind, which was greeted with roars of laughter from the audience. He treated us with fabulous images and video of his mission to the Moon, but there was one image in particular he showed that really had an affect on me personally.
Al showed us a magnificent shot of the crescent Earth that he took while in lunar orbit. Here we see just how small and fragile our home planet really is. He put it simply- "That's home."

Of course everyone in the room was amazed by such a photo because it shows the Earth as it really is. Out there in the blackness of space. Alone. I guess it had such an impact on me because here was a man who had seen the fragile oasis on which we live, from a distance of a quarter of a million miles away. I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the audience who felt that extra sense of responsibility for taking care of our planet that bit more. You can see what Al had to say about the matter for himself in the above video.

The Apollo 15 mission was a success in every sense of the word. The only failure being that one of the three parachutes didn't deploy after atmospheric re-entry(This didn't make any real difference, because the CM was designed to be able to land with only two chutes), and also the fact that Al couldn't grow much of a beard, having spent two weeks in space!

The event came to a close when Al answered a few audience questions on the subject of the Apollo 1 fire, the Space Shuttle as well as the future of the manned space programme. 

On behalf of everyone in attendance that night, I would like to sincerely thank Paul Ryan, organiser of this magnificent event, Dr Norah Patten of ICOMP, and of course, Mr Al Worden, for coming to Ireland to tell his stories of his adventure to the Moon.

On a sidenote

I had learned about a week before the event at LIT, that ESA astronaut Leopold Eyharts was coming to Dublin to give a lecture in Dublin's Science Gallery. What a shame that the two events were on the same day! I guess astronauts coming to Ireland are like buses. They rarely come along, and then two show up at the exact same time!

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!