Seven men in the history of humanity stand apart from the rest of us. These are the Apollo command module pilots who spent time alone in orbit around the Moon, while their colleagues walked on the lunar surface. When they were on the far side of the Moon, these astronauts were completely out of contact, and further from Earth, than anyone had ever been before. Or has ever been since.
Only five of these people are still alive and, when I meet him, Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden still looks every bit the veteran astronaut. Even in the unlikely surroundings of a crowded restaurant in Yorkshire, in northern England, this former test pilot stands out – an alpha male holding court, surrounded by a group of admirers eagerly hanging on his every word.
Worden flew to the Moon in July 1971, alongside commander Dave Scott and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin. During his time alone on the command module he entered the record books as the "most isolated human being" ever - at times his companions being 3,600km (2,235 miles) away on the lunar surface.
Like the other Apollo astronauts I’ve met Worden would rather talk about the mission and its achievements, than himself. As the first of the so-called “J” class missions, Apollo 15 is widely accepted as the most scientifically rigorous of the Apollo programme. Nevertheless, as we sit down in a quiet corner of the hotel bar, with proposals out there for a return to the Moon and missions to Mars, I’m keen to learn about the human experience of being so far from home:
Do you feel that command module pilots get overlooked by history – you had what was perceived as the less glamorous job?
It’s kind of funny, everybody’s focussed on those who land on the Moon but their function is to pick up a rock. They’re just out gathering rocks and they bring all those rocks back and they get analysed. In terms of the science, you gather a lot more science from lunar orbit than you can on the surface. I photographed, for example, about 25% of the lunar surface – the first time that had been done. I mapped about that same amount. That’s a lot of data to come back. In fact, I guess they’re still looking at it.
I’m interested in what was going through your mind as the lunar lander separated from the command module and you see it getting smaller and smaller in the window as it passes out of sight and descends towards the Moon. What goes through your mind when that’s happening?
First off, you wish them luck: “I hope you land okay!” The second thought is: “gee I’m glad they’ve gone because I’ve got this place all to myself.” And so I had three wonderful days in a spacecraft all by myself.
Wasn’t it lonely?
There’s a thing about being alone and there’s a thing about being lonely, and they’re two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely. My background was as a fighter pilot in the airforce, then as a test pilot – and that was mostly in fighter airplanes – so I was very used to being by myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t have to talk to Dave and Jim any more, except once they came around [when the orbiting command module was above the landing site) and I said “hi”. On the backside of the Moon, I didn’t even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight.