You were a quarter of a million miles away from home though.
Yes, you’re a long way away but the thing that most impressed me about being in lunar orbit – particularly the times when I was by myself – was that every time I came round the backside of the Moon, I got to a window where I could watch the Earthrise and that was phenomenal. And in addition to that, I got to look at the universe out there with a very different perspective and a very different way than anyone had before.
What I found was that the number of stars was just so immense. In fact I couldn’t pick up individual stars, it was like a sheet of light. I found that fascinating because it changed my ideas about how we think about the Universe.
There are billions of stars out there – the Milky Way galaxy that we’re in contains billions of stars, not just a few. And there are billions of galaxies out there. So what does that tell you about the Universe? That tells you we just don’t think big enough. To my mind that’s the whole purpose of the space programme, to figure out what that’s all about.
Did that not make you feel even smaller and even more alone?
Oh yeah, you want to feel insignificant? Go behind the Moon sometime. That’ll make you really feel that you’re nothing!
I’m intrigued that you said you preferred being out of contact with Houston, why was that?
I didn’t need someone yammering in my ear. I had a lot of work to do. I had a lot of things I was trying to accomplish. I kind of say that in a joking way, because if anything serious were to come up then I’d certainly want them to contact me. But if everything was going well, I didn’t need to talk to them and I could concentrate on the science I was doing.
How busy were you? I imagine a lot of your thinking about the Earth and the Universe was done after the mission?
That’s a funny thing, when you’re out there observing all this and doing all this remote sensing, and the photographing and the-this and the-that, you don’t really have time to think much about it. You put it in a memory bank and when you get back that you think about all that. I worked 20 hours a day and I’d get three or four hours of sleep a night. So you really don’t have the luxury of the time to sit and look out of the window and think “oh gosh I can ponder on the universe out there and philosophise about what’s there.”
What about music – what was your mix tape for the Moon?
We had little cassette players that we could use during the flight. I was, and still am, an absolute Beatles fan and I love their music. I also carried some Elton John, some John Denver and the Blue Danube Waltz [from the movie 2001, a Space Odyssey].
You are one of only seven people who have been isolated, in orbit around the Moon [the others are the command module pilots of Apollo 10, 11, 12, 14, 16 and 17 and only Apollo 15, 16 and 17 pilots spent three days alone in lunar orbit]. Are there lessons that astronauts in the future can learn, if and when we return to the Moon or go onto Mars?
I think there probably are, although we all had different experiences. The lesson I got was don’t get too friendly with your crew. With the long periods of time you spend with the other two, I found that I was more tuned to doing the job I had to do than I was with interfacing with them. We really worked well together professionally but we were not particularly great friends and I think that was a benefit.