Just 24 people have flown to the Moon, and Colonel Al Worden is one of them. In 1971, the Apollo 15 astronaut embarked on a 12-day mission that had more of a scientific focus than any that came before it.

“We were past the point of just being able to fly to the Moon and come back,” said Worden, speaking at a Motorola research lab in Krakow, Poland. “We had done that a number of times. And so we focused on the science that we’re going to do what we got there. And we were considered at the time – and even today – the most scientific crew in the Apollo programme.”

All the extra science equipment, including the first lunar rover, meant that the 4th manned lunar mission carried a lot of extra weight – close to seven million pounds.

It took seven and a half million pounds of thrust for the towering Saturn V rocket to leave the Earth’s orbit.

“A lot of people have misconceptions about what you look like inside the spacecraft during the launch,” he said. “You’ve all seen movies where faces get distorted because of the G forces and all that. That’s nonsense. That is absolute nonsense. We didn’t even know we’re off the launch pad. We moved so slow that we didn’t even know we were moving.”

As command module pilot, it was Worden’s job to orbit the Moon while his crewmates, David Scott and James Irwin, spent 18 and a half hours collecting Moon rocks and carrying out experiments on the lunar surface.

Al Worden: “If you don’t have a sense of humour during that time, you aren’t going to make it”

During this time, Worden photographed 25% of the Moon in high resolution and with a mapping camera.

But when it was time for Scott and Irwin to return and re-dock with the command module, Worden had other ideas.

“Dave and I weren’t always on the same page with things,” joked Worden. “And early in our training, I started making a list of all the things that we disagreed on. And so I had my list with me. And they [Scott and Irwin] said, ‘What’s going on?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, since I’m the only one who can go home, there are some things that we need to talk about.’ And I got out my list. And so I read them to him and he quickly agreed with me.

“It was the quickest Dave Scott ever agreed with anybody, I think.”

The humour of astronauts, and the gruelling training programmes they must go through, are no secret.

Being an astronaut requires peak physical condition and ace piloting abilities to function in space and operate the command module that contained “some 730 switches and circuit breakers”.

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“I trained three years on an average of 70 hours a week to make that flight,” said Worden. “If you don’t have a sense of humour during that time, you aren’t going to make it. I guarantee you, it’s just too much stress.”

So, who was the biggest joker on the Apollo missions? According to Worden, it’s Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad, who had “three or four playboy bunny pictures” in his checklist while walking on the Moon.

Spacewalk

While Worden is not one of the 12 people to have walked on the Moon, he did perform a spacewalk – the first in deep space at a record of 315,000km from Earth – to retrieve film from two cameras outside the spacecraft.

“Three times, I brought the film back. I went out a third time put my feet in some foot restraints, stood up on the outside of the service module and just looked around,” said Worden.

“And just by turning my head, I could see both the Earth and the Moon. Now that’s a unique position to be in, where you can see both of them at the same time. Really, really neat. And I was working my brain overtime, trying to figure out how I could stay out there longer. Because it was so much fun.”

But Worden did it in record time – spending a total of 38 minutes manoeuvring in the vacuum of space.

Moon bases and Mars

It is 50 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the Moon, and 47 years since humans last stepped on the Moon during Apollo 16.

The next planetary milestone is Mars, but Worden doesn’t expect that to happen any time soon. He believes it will be 30 to 40 years before humans make it to the red planet – a much more conservative target than SpaceX’s Musk who has previously said humans will arrive on Mars by 2025.

Musk has also suggested that humans should establish a “permanently occupied” base on the Moon. Some say that its reduced gravity would make it an ideal place for missions from Mars to depart from – but Worden isn’t convinced.

“I think there are a lot of people that are thinking about putting settlements on the Moon and that’s bullshit. That’s nonsense,” Worden told Verdict.

He did, however, suggest it would be of useful scientific value to “build the largest radio telescope you can imagine on the backside of the Moon” to carry out scientific studies.

Space race 2.0?

Much has been made of the so-called ‘space race’ between the US and Russia. But Worden is quick to draw attention to the collaborative nature of the Apollo missions between countries.

“Now they’re talking about space race, between the US and China,” he said. “I hate to talk about a space race, I think the only solution going forward is cooperative programmes.”

The technical challenges such as solar radiation, and the costs that come with them, makes collaboration necessary, he added.

“I don’t see any one country doing it on their own. Now we’re talking big about it in the States. I know, we’ve got Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos and private companies. But I’m not sure they really understand the really serious issues we’re going to have to face up to, to go to Mars.

“And I think that’s going to take everybody in the world, adding their expertise to whatever is going into that programme to make it successful.”

“I think cooperation is the name of the game.”


Read more: Space soundbites: James Burke and Helen Sharman on the Apollo programme