Astronaut Al Worden, who died on March 18 this year, was one of the 24 men who went to the Moon and back. In July 1971, Colonel Worden piloted the Command Module Endeavour in lunar orbit while his colleagues David Scott and James Irwin walked on the surface of the Moon. Although the NASA astronaut never went down to the lunar surface himself, he became the first astronaut to perform a deep space EVA or extravehicular activity when he completed a 38 minute spacewalk above the Moon.
During the historic mission – NASA’s fourth successful Moon landing – Colonel Worden performed scientific experiments of his own and retrieved film canisters from Endeavours cameras.
More importantly, however, the astronaut remained in lunar orbit to ensure the safe return of his crewmates to Earth.
The Apollo missions were comprised of two spacecraft: the Command Modules that flew to and back from the Moon, and the two-man Lunar Modules that landed on the Moon and flew back into lunar orbit.
Once the Lunar Module rendezvoused with the Command Module above the Moon, the spacecraft was discarded and the astronauts burned their engines to fly back to Earth.
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The rendezvous was a critical and delicate operation that required the Lunar Module to match the Command Module’s orbit.
The spacecraft would then slowly coast towards the Command Module, using small thrusters known as the reaction control system (RCS) to adjust its position.
NASA said: “The docking manoeuvres are controlled by the commander through short bursts of the reaction control engines on the active vehicle.
“He is aided in manoeuvring his craft by the crewman alignment sight, an optical device something like the range finder of a camera which is mounted at a rendezvous window.”
In the case of Apollo 15, Colonel Worden said the orbital rendezvous was a surprisingly easy task.
It was an operation that was as smooth as oil
Alfred Worden, NASA astronaut
In an interview published by Warbird Digest, he told Luigino Caliaro in 2019 how NASA’s extensive training regimes and simulators had prepared the astronauts for the task.
Colonel Worden said: “I must also say that I was positively surprised by the docking manoeuvre with the LEM upon returning from the Moon.
“It was an operation that was as smooth as oil.
“David Scott, once he stabilised the LEM, positioned it about 20 metres from the Command Module, and with a very fluid and slow manoeuvre, I simply completed the docking operation with no problems.
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“It was much simpler than I imagined it. Without a doubt, it was due to the extensive training and simulation on the ground.”
According to the astronaut, about 25 percent of his time in training was spent in NASA’s simulators.
He described this as a difficult period that took a toll on the astronauts’ personal and family lives.
He said: “I must admit that, at the cost of appearing insensible, we trained so intensely and for such long periods that when the moment of the mission came, it was like carrying out another training session in the simulator.
“The only difference was that we were in a different environment; it was the real deal.
“Throughout the mission, we did not encounter particular problems and everything went as planned, exactly as in training.
“I was also so busy and focused on my job that I didn’t have time to fully realize where I was and what I was doing.”
Colonel Worden died in his sleep at the age of 88.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said of his death: “I’m deeply saddened to hear that Apollo astronaut Al Worden has passed away.
“Al was an American hero whose achievements in space and on Earth will never be forgotten. My prayers are with his family and friends.”
In total, the astronaut has logged more than 295 hours in space.
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