Falling to Earth

People have walked on the Moon. A lucky few. Most have readily shared their experience; some did so with a keen eye to making a personal profit. One who did not was Al Worden lunar command module pilot for Apollo 15. As he explains in his autobiographically styled book “Falling to Earth – An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon“, postal covers were much less than a tiny footnote to his accomplishments. Thankfully, this event is an equally tiny part of his enlightening book which takes the reader from a life on a farm in Michigan through to a Mississippi river boat ride.

Al Worden was the lunar command module pilot for Apollo 15, the fourth mission to land on the Moon and the first with a lunar rover. In answer to one of my unspoken questions, he writes that he preferred to remain flying in the command module while his crew members explored the area about Hadley Rille. They travelled only a few kilometres about the lunar module, while he orbited thousands of miles, often at a very low height. His descriptions about looking up at the mountains of the Moon and down at fields of cinder cones put the reader right there beside him.

While this book has some very eloquent and moving descriptions of the lunar surface and the surrounding star field, it is much like a biography. And, as put in the book, the few weeks in space were only a small fraction of Worden’s life. Much more happened and continues to happen. In a relaxed, open way, the reader gets swept along through his early years of growing hay, buying cars, attending college, training at West Point and general life in the air force. This time, while interesting, shows Worden’s life to be almost ordinary with very little indication of what was to come. Even his time with the air force appears to demonstrate a person with a natural bent toward mechanical items and a ready desire to do well.

Apparently this was sufficient, as Worden became part of the fifth tranche of astronauts. For the space minded, this is where the book becomes much more interesting. Here, the reader gets taken into the privileged astronaut club as a visceral member. Descriptions of pranks or gotchas abound, as well as joys of racing cars, buying new homes and keeping a family together. Not all were maintained, as the overall impression one gets is of an incredibly busy time filled with assessing, training and planning. Being a backup to Apollo 12, prime on Apollo 15 and temporary backup for Apollo 17, put a huge amount on Worden’s figurative plate. This book doesn’t gloss over the difficulties with its description of the end of Worden’s marriage, the accidental deaths of other astronauts and the constant need to ensure a successful mission. Nevertheless, the reader gets carried through this and joins Worden in the capsule as it journeys to the Moon and back again.

In a bit of a different tack, the book then sets upon a new course as it presents the postal cover issue. While obviously very important for the author to set the record straight, which he admirably does, it may seem to the reader that too much is made of it. The book says mea culpa but it also provides a background detailing the similar practices of other mission crew members and the specific actions of the author and his fellow crew. Fortunately, this is a brief portion of the book, but given that this event ruined the author’s career, the reader will understand the rational for its inclusion.

The remainder of the book is a very quick summary of Worden’s life after Apollo. While he stayed within NASA for awhile, he eventually retired, tried many opportunities and rebuilt a relationship with the astronaut corp that remains to this day. The final section has a most moving personal thought on why humankind explores, our need to continually advance into space and the effect of seeing the finite Earth floating in space. While occasionally the book has passages that feel like a transcribed log book, this section must have come completely from the author’s heart.

As the miracle of the early space age wanes into history, we can benefit by reconsidering what it was all about. With a personal view as provided by Al Worden in his book “Falling to Earth – An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon“, the reader can go back to that time, relive some grand moments, and realize just how far humankind has advanced in the last few generations.

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