Born and raised on a farm outside Jackson, Michigan, Al Worden (1932–2020) made history as the Command Module Pilot on Apollo 15, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer. On that mission—deemed the 'most scientific' of all Apollos—Worden famously performed the first-ever deep space EVA, exiting the spacecraft at a distance of more than 196,000 miles away from Earth to retrieve film canisters from the Service Module's SIM bay.
With Commander Dave Scott and Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin, Worden formed one third of the only all-Air Force Apollo crew. His path to NASA began with the decisions made in his youth: upon graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1955, he chose to be commissioned into the Air Force—despite no experience as a pilot. Excited by the prospect of flight, he first trained in Texas on the Beechcraft T-34 before advancing to Lockheed T-33 jet trainers. From there, he went on to Air Defense Command training at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, flying F-86D Sabres. His first post-training assignment was with the 95th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C., where he flew F-86Ds, and later, F-102 Delta Daggers.
In an effort to advance his career and benefit the Air Force, Worden attended the University of Michigan, graduating in 1963 with Master of Science degrees in aerospace engineering and instrumentation engineering. After his application to the USAF Test Pilot School was declined, he took part in an exchange program with Britain's Royal Air Force and trained at the Empire Test Pilots' School in Farnborough, England. Returning stateside, he served as an instructor at the Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) at the request of Colonel Chuck Yeager.
When NASA opened up applications for its fifth group of astronauts in 1965, Worden eagerly entered his name and was selected. In his memoir, he recounted: 'Professionally, I figured it couldn't get any better than that. Even being a test pilot couldn't compare with being an astronaut and making a spaceflight.' His first assignment was as part of the astronaut team involved in the design and testing the Command Module at North American Aviation's plant in Downey, California. He was then assigned to the support crew for Apollo 9, and as backup CMP for Apollo 12.
In early 1970, Worden, Scott, and Irwin were publicly named as the crew for Apollo 15. It was the first of the 'J-series' Apollo missions, with a three-day lunar stay, the first deployment of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, and a suite of scientific instruments designed for lunar research on board. Blasting off from Cape Canaveral on July 26, 1971, Worden, as the CMP, piloted the CSM 'Endeavour' for 74 lunar obits, operating scientific instruments and cameras for lunar surface mapping while Scott and Irwin explored the moon on foot.
In a 2015 interview with RocketSTEM, Worden playfully recalled: 'Do you know what they did down on the Moon? What those guys’ primary job was? They picked up rocks and dirt. Now myself, in lunar orbit, I did probably a thousand times more science than they did, because I had all these remote sensors and big cameras and all kinds of things I was running the whole six days I was there. Dave and Jim picked up 170 pounds of rocks, huh? Big deal!'
After his rendezvous with Irwin and Scott on August 2nd, Worden prepared to go where no man had gone before: outside his spacecraft in deep space. During their journey back to Earth on August 5th, at a distance of approximately 196,000 miles away from Earth, Worden exited the main hatch of the CSM 'Endeavour' to retrieve film magazines from the SIM (Scientific Instrument Module) bay, logging 38 minutes outside the spacecraft. The mission concluded with a successful splashdown in the Pacific, and subsequent recovery by the USS Okinawa. In completing his flight, Worden spent a total of 295 hours and 11 minutes in space.
Following the historic Apollo 15 flight, Worden worked at NASA's Ames Research Center, ran for Congress, wrote books, and engaged in philanthropic activities in support of STEM education.