Having seen Al Worden before, I was under no doubt that it was going to be a super evening and I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed.
After the brief preamble and introduction by Mark Hempsall, the president of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), Al took the stage.
Standing behind a purpose built podium, Al shared the stage with a giant model of the docked Lunar and Command Modules suspended over the Apollo 15 mission logo.
Al’s theme for the talk – a brief walk through the history of NASA spaceflight.
Starting at the beginning, Al took over 100 of the assembled crowd through the Mercury and Gemini programs until finally reaching the beginning of the Apollo program.
He explained the events that led up to the terrible pad fire of the Apollo 1 mission and spoke of the reasons behind the tragedy and the lessons that were learned by NASA.
Moving on through Apollo 7 and the near disaster of Apollo 13, Al began to share memories and anecdotes of his own Apollo 15 mission.
He began by explaining how the logo bore the Roman numerals XV in the form of crater shadows and how an Italian underwear designer came to be the company making NASA space suits.
Moving on to describe the gentleness of the launch, Al then explained how nice it was to have time on own after releasing the Lunar module containing David Scott and James Irwin, joking that after spending over three days in close confinement with them, it was nice to have some space!
As part of this time on his own, Al tells the audience how he removed the central seat from the command module to give himself extra room to move about and how this backfired on him slightly when, during a main engine retro burn, he was thrown from one of the remaining seats into a wall mounted g-pad due to a lack of bracing with the centre seat removed.
Al emphasised the scientific content of the mission and spoke of the some of the instrumentation aboard the service module including a mass spectrometer – a device used to analyse the composition of the thin lunar atmosphere. After saying that it had detected nothing for the first two days of his solo mission orbiting the moon, he had been contacted by mission control about some unexpected results. It turned out that it had picked up the liquid waste dumped into space from the Command module which, much to the crowd’s delight, Al likened to a cloud of white urine ‘snow’ that followed Endeavour wherever it went.
Speaking about the last parts of his Apollo 15 mission, he related the story of the iconic photo taken by James Irwin during his EVA – the first ever deep space extra vehicular activity. With his typical dry sense of humour, he jokingly blames Irwin for only taking a picture of his back and feet as he retrieves the film from the Scientific Instrument Module (the SIM bay) on the side of the service module, even though Irwin insisted the camera ‘jammed’. At this, Al rolls his eyes and comments on the camera not having jammed whilst James took a thousand shots on the lunar surface, to which the crowds laugh again.
He also relates the tale of the unofficial disposal of bags of solid waste from the astronauts, saying that much like the urine ‘snow’ previously mentioned, these bags would follow the CM all the way back to Earth on the return journey but that “NASA could sort that crap out” when they got back.
Unsurprisingly, this was also very well received and met with yet more riotous laughter.
Al finished off the history of NASA spaceflight talking about the space shuttle and how he percieved it to be a more dangerous vehicle than the Apollo CM citing the tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia vehicles. He brought the presentation full circle by comparing the Apollo Saturn V vehicles and the new NASA space launch system (SLS) saying he was pleased to see a retun to a capsule type vehicle, much like the planned Orion project.
At the point where Al’s talk had finally reached an end and the huge applause was dying down, David Hawksett from Guinness World Records took the stage. Many of the audience had been at the Reinventing Space conference diner the night before to see Al presented with his World Record for the most remote human being and assumed it was to be a repeat of the same but for this nights audience.
But no! Over the next few minutes the audience were delighted to see Al presented with another World Record – the first ever “deep space” (ie. beyond LEO) EVA. This was especially poignant as whilst other astronauts in the future will eventually travel further and be ‘remoter’ than Al, this award for being the first, would never be broken and would always remain Al’s.
With the main talk concluded the serious business of signing got underway in an adjoining room. People waited patiently in line and had options to purchase Al’s excellent book “Falling to Earth” now on its 16th reprint and a range of fine quality prints for Al to sign.
Patient and generous to a fault, Al always took the time to have a short chat to people who had waited to see him for a signature.
As I was manning the signing table for the BIS, I got to see first hand the massive range of space related items that people had brought for Al to sign. Some of the more notable items included, a moon globe, a huge mission logo, the original prayer sheets from the recovery ship’s chaplain and even some exceptionally rare Alan Bean artwork.
Whilst Al’s talk and signing provided the main focus for the evening, a number of other tables and displays had been set up.
The BIS had set up a great stand of information and merchandise in the foyer to the main hall and signing room. The display also included a superb array of space related auction and raffle items all kindly commissioned and donated for the event.
Nick Howes, of Aerolite Europe, had a great display of meteorites and kindly donated all of his profits from the event to Children in Need.
After quite a few people had left and Al had been backwards and forwards a couple of times for various photoshoots, he returned finally to the signing table. What came next was a testament to kind and generous nature of a true gent.
One of the guys who had been waiting quite a while for Al to return in order to get a signed copy of his book, finally got his chance and asked Al a question about his piloting of the command module during re-entry. As Al began to speak, more people gathered round to listen to another smaller and more intimate talk. Complete by diagrams on a scrap of paper, Al explained the intricacies of re-entry. He explained to the assembled dozen of us how the 3 degree variation away from perpendicular was enough to allow the CM to skip through the atmosphere and how by firing the thrusters to effectively roll the CM left or right would change the orientation sufficiently to “steer” it.
Fascinating and such a privilege!
With final books and pictures signed and a pint of fine English ale drunk (by Al), the event finally concluded.
I think it’s fair to say that there cannot have been a single person who left disappointed after such a great night.
A big thanks go out to the British Interplanetary Society for hosting such a great event and especially to Vix Southgate for co-ordinating and organising it all.