This Day in History: Alone in Space
On this day in 1932, a pioneer is born. Alfred “Al” Worden is perhaps best known for his service as the command module pilot for Apollo 15.
He spent three days orbiting the moon, alone, while his crewmates were on the lunar surface. At one point, Worden was 2,235 miles away from his crewmates. That experience has earned Worden a Guinness world record as the “most isolated human being.”
Can you imagine being so very alone in the great vastness of space?
Worden wrote of the moments when the lunar module left him behind: “It felt odd to see them grow smaller, until they were just a speck against the lunar background. . . . A quarter of a million miles away, planet Earth was home to all but three humans. Two of them, Dave and Jim, were now two thousand miles away on the other side of a big, dead ball of rock. And then there was me.”
Nevertheless, Worden was ready for his solo adventure. He was a former Air Force pilot, and he’d become accustomed to flying alone. He later admitted that he “most enjoyed the back side of the moon, where Houston couldn't get hold of me on the radio.”
Maybe it didn’t hurt that he planned to make a big splash each time he emerged from behind the moon? “Hello Earth, greetings from Endeavor,” he said when he initiated radio contact—except he spoke in a different language each time.
He hoped the press back home would sit up and pay more attention to the mission.
Even at that early date, the excitement of Apollo 11 was gone. Missions to the moon felt “ho-hum” to the public, like “nothing exciting.” Meanwhile, the scientific community was experiencing the opposite: Apollo missions had become increasingly important, which left Worden with much to do during his days alone in space.
He ran science experiments and took measurements, seeking to determine what lay under the moon’s surface. Was there potential for volcanic activity? He bounced radio signals off the moon and back to Earth, giving scientists even more information.
Worden also used more than a mile of film, taking hundreds and hundreds of photos.
His favorite of these was that of a “crescent Earth” (see photo). “The reason it’s kind of important is that it reminds you,” he later told an interviewer, “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.”
Perhaps he was most stunned by his experiences on the far side of the 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,” he described in an interview. His biography elaborates, noting that Worden turned the cabin lights off so he could see better. “There was no end to the stars,” he wrote. “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. . . . My vision was filled with a blaze of starlight.”
He would later speculate that there’s a reason so many astronauts become religious after traveling to space.
The solo adventure had to end, of course. The crew reunited and traveled home. The story might have ended there, but, instead, a scandal erupted—a scandal about postal covers that had been carried aboard Apollo 15, then given to a stamp dealer.
Worden was fired from NASA, but he eventually filed—and won—a lawsuit against the government. He took his hits, persevered, and rebuilt his reputation. He was even inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1997.
Naturally, those are stories for another day.
More stories about NASA
can be found on my website, HERE.
Al Worden & Francis French, Falling to Earth (2011)
Honoring the Life of Al Worden (Kennedy Space Center website)
Most Isolated Human Being (Guinness World Records website)
Russell Lewis, Retired Apollo 15 Astronaut Al Worden Dies At 88 (NPR; Mar. 18, 2020)
Steve Kaminski, Astronaut, Jackson native Al Worden to discuss new memoir (Michigan Live; Oct. 24, 2011)
To see Earth and Moon in a single glance: An interview with Apollo 15 Astronaut Al Worden (Learning for Life; June 29, 2016)