Imagine being an Air Force test pilot from rural Michigan, and being selected to take part in one of mankind’s greatest adventures. In his book Falling to Earth (co-written with Francis French, published by Smithsonian Books), “Original Nineteen” NASA astronaut and Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden wrote: “Only twenty-four humans have left Earth orbit and journeyed to the Moon. I’m one of them. It’s an exclusive club, so small that I am still surprised they let me in. After all, hundreds of people have traveled into space. Yet most people have never strayed beyond low Earth orbit. Our little group traveled a great deal farther – more than a thousand times farther … In short, we were lucky.”
Worden’s autobiography is filled with candid tales about his life’s adventures, particularly his time at NASA. It’s no surprise he is opinionated about the future of space, including the deep space-oriented Orion program, which will undergo an Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) Thursday, Dec. 4. Next week’s flight, which has been likened most to November 1967’s Apollo 4 mission, will serve as a test of Orion’s systems and heat shield.
AmericaSpace recently had the opportunity to interview Worden about Orion/SLS, Mars, space stations, and colonizing space. One of the only humans to travel beyond low-Earth orbit has his eye on human survival and is concerned the public will lose interest in space travel, the only hope to preserve our species: “In a normal world, the enthusiasm would be automatic. But in our world today, I fear we have been dumbed down to a point where there is not much hope by those who care.”
AmericaSpace: NASA will soon launch Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), which will test Orion’s capsule in flight and reentry. It has been described as being most similar to Apollo 4, which launched in late 1967. Many space buffs (unfortunately) were not alive or very young during Apollo, so they might not get (or understand) the link as far as space history is concerned. Do you think EFT-1 is as significant (or not) as Apollo 4, and why?
Al Worden: No, I don’t think it is that significant at this time in the space program. Apollo was really the first and most successful spacecraft we used. Orion is supposed to be the spacecraft to go farther out than anything before it. I am not a fan, so it is not very important to me. There are much better reentry shapes that could return from Mars and have the L/D [lift-to-drag ratio] to reenter the atmosphere without some tricks. This shape incidentally was developed because the people at Houston believed they knew how to do it, since they had done it before. However, not one person is still there who was involved with Apollo. We are reliving the past with Orion, and not adding to the technology to get us to Mars. Orion, with its limited L/D, will have to do an atmospheric braking maneuver before making the final reentry.
AmericaSpace: You are one of the very few humans to orbit another world. While you were flying on Apollo 15, did you ever think that possibly another generation would go back to the Moon, or perhaps a more distant target?
Worden: When we flew on Apollo 15, the end was certainly not in sight. I expected further flights and a go at Mars before long. I never thought we would go back to the Moon because there is nothing there that would be worth the effort. Others will do it because it is a feather in their cap, but it is mostly wasted motion. We need to get to Mars, but only as another step to the places we really want to explore. It might take us centuries to develop the capability to go to the next life-supporting planet, but that should be our goal.
AmericaSpace: At present time, there seems to be no initiative to take humans back to the Moon. Do you think humanity can still benefit (scientifically or otherwise) from going back to the Moon, or should it be relegated to being explored by, say, robots?
Worden: Tough question … but I will try an answer. There is no reason to go back to the Moon, unless we get serious and place a large telescope on the back side to see the rest of our galaxy. In my mind, the whole reason for the space program is to find another life-supporting planet that we can reach when we can no longer live here. We are talking thousands of years perhaps, but we have to start somewhere.
AmericaSpace: While Orion and SLS is meant to take humans to deep space targets such as asteroids or (eventually) Mars, at present time commercial firms have taken over cargo and human travel to low Earth orbit (to the ISS). What are your thoughts on keeping a human presence in LEO on space stations, now and in the future?
Worden: Best idea yet. But I do see the ISS or something similar being used as a gas station for deep space probes. If we don’t use L5 [the fifth Lagrangian point, proposed as a location for possible space habitats], then a station in orbit will have to do. Think back to Star Trek and think about how they used an earth-orbiting space station. It was a repair and refueling stop on the way. I see that as something we should be developing for long range plans.
AmericaSpace: As well as being one of the few Moon orbiters, you also had the unique opportunity to experience the power of the Saturn V launch vehicle. The Space Launch Vehicle (SLS) has been touted as its “successor” in terms of power. What can future SLS passengers possibly expect from such an intense vehicle?
Worden: I would guess it will be about the same as the Saturn V. The payload weight will be close to the thrust levels at liftoff, so it will react about like the S-V. It is still not even close to what we will need in the future. Propulsion is the key to space travel, and we are still tied to chemical engines. Once we develop the capability to provide infinite power so we can slip past the speed of light barrier, then we will be able to explore the vast universe as needed. I take a very long range view of this as you might notice.
Many thanks to author Francis French and astronaut Al Worden for making this interview possible.
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