Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon, by Al Worden

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Pam and I had married so that we could be together during my training. We had already decided to spend our lives together, and we didn’t want that commitment interrupted. Why wait, we reasoned? We’d been dating long enough that marriage seemed like a natural step.

Another of the astronaut autobiographies which I saw recommended in this blog post in 2020 (via File 770). I enjoyed Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire so much that I made it my book of 2021. Like Collins, Worden got to circle the Moon while his colleagues went and landed on it; unlike Collins, his career had a hard crash immediately afterwards, as a result of a scandal involving the sale for profit of commemorative stamps that the astronauts had brought to the lunar surface and back. Worden stayed loyal to his commander, David Scott, when the whole story broke, but nearing the end of his life clearly felt that he needed to tell his side and clarify Scott’s overall responsibility. (He died at 88 in March 2020; Scott, now 91, is the last remaining Apollo commander.)

On the technological side, Worden’s account tallies with Collins, though it’s less funny; it’s rather delightful though to read of him developing a passion for lunar geology, and manically photographing every possible inch of the moon’s surface while in orbit. Worden’s personal life was more complex, as he and his first wife divorced while he was undergoing his astronaut training, and one also senses that he was politically less astute than Collins – he notes of a dinner that the Apollo 15 team had with President Nixon and Vice-President Agnew that all five of them underwent public disgrace soon afterwards, but there is not much introspection as to how this happened.

The part of the story I found most shocking in fact was the serious health issue endured by the third man on the mission, James Irwin, whose heart underwent serious stress in the final stages of the lunar excursion. Irwin had a heart attack less than two years after their mission, aged only 43, and was the first of the twelve who walked on the moon to die, aged 61 in 1991. NASA failed to communicate Irwin’s health situation clearly to the three astronauts, and Scott, decided that they should keep working, an error as it turned out, but based on incomplete information. Both the stamps scandal and Irwin’s overwork were mistaken decisions made by Scott, but in a framework established by NASA that made these mistakes very easy to make.

(Irwin became an evangelical Christian after he returned from the moon and went on expeditions to find Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, asserting that the Book of Genesis was literally true. His grandparents were from Pomeroy, Co Tyrone, and he described himself as the first Irishman on the Moon.)

Space is exciting stuff and although I think Michael Collins’s book is superior, this is still an entertaining read. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2020. Next is A Long Day in Lychford, by Paul Cornell.