on August 13, 2012
One of the more interesting, and different of the astronaut memoirs.
On a personal note, I remember Al Worden being one of my favorites of the astronauts, though I didn't know anything personal about him at the time, and knew little more since then until reading this book. It sounds silly, having a "favorite astronaut" like he was a baseball player or popular singer, but that's the way you think when you're a kid. My reason for liking Al Worden was even sillier. I thought he was a real life space man who looked like a TV spaceman, noticing (I thought) a strong resemblance between him and Uncle Martin, the Martian on the TV show "My Favorite Martian". I admit it was silly, but I was only 9 years old..
What makes Worden and these memoirs different is that you can almost call him an "accidental astronaut". Unlike most of the astronauts, who tell about childhood obsessions with airplanes and flying, Worden was a farmboy to whom an interest in flying came late. He atteneded and graduated from West Point, not because of a desire for a career in the military, but because it was a way of getting a free education at a prestigious university, and money was short in his family. In this way, his story resembles that of US Grant, who reluctantly attended West Point for similar reasons, and who also went on to great things after a grudging beginning.
What is interesting about Worden's story and those of the other astronauts, is how, whatever endeavor he entered, from West Point to the Air Force to the astronaut program, though he doesn't seem to have pushed himself forward, to have tried to draw attention to himself, his talents and abilities immediately brought him to the front of his group, and he found himself in important positions of leadership. For example, of his astronaut group, though at first he wasn't the obvious standout, he was the first to be placed in a crew assignment.
One of the things that will most interest readers of this book is his version of the whole so-called postage-covers scandals. As I remember the scandal, it was a big story maybe for two days and then disappeared, and the public was neither outraged or much interested. It was a big stink in NASA, and congress had a few hearings, but the average man in the street didn't think it was anything so terrible, and even thought the astronauts, in trying to get some financial security for their families, did nothing wrong.
An interesting revelation was that, before Worden's Apollo 15 flight, the crew of the previous mission, Apollo 14, also raised eyebrows with some dealings similar to the postage covers mess. It never hit the newspapers, and NASA handled it internally, looking into it and issuing a set of directives covering such dealings, but that these directives had never been communicated to the astronauts themselves! Had they done so, the Apollo 15 scandal would never have occured. To me this takes the whole blame for the scandal from the astronauts and places it on NASA management. That NASA messed up to begin the scandal and then messed up further in creating a furor over such a trivial matter shows how they were losing their way after reaching their focused goal of landing on the moon. I don't think they've found their way since.
One lesson in this, for famous people, is how a trivial matter that can become a newspaper headline for a single day, one of little interest even to the public, and soon to be forgotten, can wreck a career and throw a carefully lived life into a long-term turmoil. Worden's career in the astronaut corps was ended and his NASA career interrupted (he recovered nicely after a while) by something that, a week after it hit the news, was completely forgotten by the public itself, even if those in NASA clung to it.
As other reviewers mentioned, Apollo 15 mission commander Dave Scott does not come off well in Worden's telling of the story. To return to the TV references above, he seems to have been the Eddie Haskell of the astronaut corps, and he managed to keep his skirts clean while others around him got dirtied. Scott did have the look of a wise guy in his NASA photographs, and watching the videos of his EVA's, he seems a bit hammy and bossy. Bossiness was his style of leadership, as contrasted to, say, the quiet but strong authority of a Tom Stafford, the worried insistence of a Frank Borman or the almost mute, hands-off approach of a Neil Armstrong. But let's not make Scott out as some kind of villain. In my opinion neither he or the crew did anything wrong in the stamp matter, NASA's handling of the thing was a ridiculous, panicked over-reaction combined with selective and arbitrary justice, congress's morale outrage was base hypocrisy at its worst, their criticism of and posturing and grandstanding on the astronauts allegedly attempting to "capitalize" on their government positions (as if this wasn't standard operating procedure for congress) both laughable and disgusting. Perhaps Scott's biggest mistake was, as commander, not taking on himself, and absolving his crewmates of, all blame for the mess. The commanding officer (in the military) or boss (in civilian life) gets a lot of considerations and privileges and prerogatives with his office, so it is equally his duty to take the brunt of consequences when bad things happen, and in this one case, it seems, Scott failed. But this isn't a case of outrageous villainy.
Worden gives some interesting insights into, of all people, President Nixon. Early in the book, he complains about having to stop in the middle of his space chores to listen to a windy and pretentious pronouncement from the president on the esoteric and philosophical meanings of the Apollo 15 mission and of space flight while he was, at the same time, cutting NASA's budget. You get the idea he disliked the president. Yet later on, when he visits the White House with his two daughters, he goes into detail how Nixon went out of his way to treat him and his kids with kindness and attention, and he seems to have liked Nixon (and Spiro Agnew) personally from his dealings with them, and felt strong identification with both because they were, as he was, dragged down by scandals that could have been trivial if handled differently, and properly.
One last thing. Worden goes into his historic deep space spacewalk in depth, and the main thing I took from it is the idea of some more of NASA's shortsightedness. This spacewalk was one of the most spectacular, could have been the most visually spectacular, events in the Apollo program, but passed into obscurity because it was barely photographed. Worden himself points out that there was no rush about the event, as they were on their way back to Earth with not too much to do on the way; time could have been taken to give him a camera, but this was not done, and many great pitcures were missed. Too bad.
But this book should not be missed by the space enthusiast. It is well written, tells a story that is quite different from other astronaut memoirs and gives a perspective on how upper management will protect itself, its favored employees (for example, Alan Shepherd) while sacrificing others like Worden and Apollo 15 crewmate Jim Irwin in its attempts to come clean by airing its dirty laundry.