Alfred Worden, 1932–2020
The astronaut who soared over the moon alone
For three days in the summer of 1971, Air Force Maj. Alfred Worden was the most isolated human in the galaxy. While his fellow officers and Apollo 15 crewmen—Col. David Scott and Lt. Col. James Irwin—explored the surface of the moon, Worden orbited some 60 miles above in the space capsule Endeavour. During his 74 loops around the moon, the pilot performed a suite of experiments and photographed a full 25 percent of the crater-pocked landscape below with a high-resolution camera. During his downtime, Worden did little except peer out of the capsule window, contemplating the fathomless darkness and awaiting the next “Earth rise” as he circled the moon’s far side. “The isolation was wonderful,” said Worden. “I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely.”
Worden grew up one of six children on a family farm outside Jackson, Mich., said The New York Times. The farm “yielded little profit,” and Worden, bored by agricultural work, vowed that he’d do anything to avoid spending his life there. Worden received a one-year scholarship to the University of Michigan, and when his funding ran out, he applied to West Point, which offered a free education. After graduating in 1955, Worden joined the Air Force. He proved to be a natural airman, flying fighter jets stateside and later becoming a test pilot while also receiving master’s degrees in aeronautics and engineering.
He landed “a spot in NASA’s 1966 astronaut class,” said The Washington Post, and worked support roles on two Apollo missions before blasting off himself. During the flight back to Earth with Apollo 15, Worden “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.” Back on terra firma, the crew were “celebrated as heroes,” said NPR.org. But NASA soon learned that the three astronauts had taken a couple hundred stamped envelopes into space and intended to sell the unusual cargo to a German stamp dealer for $21,000. The incident “became a public relations nightmare,” and all three were effectively booted from the Apollo program. “We’re not the only flight that that happened on,” said Worden, “It’s just that [NASA was] at a point in time where they needed to make a statement about it.”
After leaving NASA in 1975, Worden “continued to work in the aerospace and aviation industries,” said the Jackson, Mich., Citizen Patriot. He spread his love of space flight to a new generation with a children’s book and multiple appearances on the kids’ TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. To the end, Worden spoke of how his “brief glimpse into infinity” on the far side of the moon had changed him forever. “I still have lingering questions about what I experienced,” he wrote at the close of his 2011 memoir. “The answers won’t come in my lifetime. That’s your job.”