NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Houston, Texas – 26 May 2000
Wright: This oral history is being conducted at the Johnson Space
Center in Houston, Texas, with Al Worden. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright,
with the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.
Thank you again for taking time to visit with us today. We'd like
for you to begin by sharing with us how you first became interested
As I was growing up, aviation was not really something that was foremost
in my mind. I grew up on a small farm in Michigan, had six brothers
and sisters. We really depended on the farm for a lot of things. From
the age of twelve on, I basically ran the farm, did all the field
work, milked the cows, did all that until I left for college. Well,
in that period from the time I was twelve until I was eighteen and
going to college, I made up my mind that this is not what I wanted
to do the rest of my life. So I determined that I'd go to college,
and I ended up with an appointment to West Point [Military Academy,
West Point back in the fifties was a school that I think the primary
thing they taught at West Point was leadership, military leadership.
We got a lot of military classes. We also had enough academic classes
that we ended up with a bachelor of military science, which was basically
an engineering degree. But it was a leadership school, and I had determined
that I was going to be an Army leader. I was going to be the guy that
was going to go up the hill first and bring all the troops with me,
and we're going to win San Juan Hill all over again.
My last year there, things began to change for me because I had a
couple of tactical officers who were Air Force. One was probably not
too well known by a lot of people, but his name was Arnold Tucker.
Arnold Tucker was quarterback on the West Point football team back
in the '47, '48, '49 period, when Doc Blanchard and Glen Davis were
playing, and he was their quarterback. He was a very, very outstanding
major in the Air Force at the time. He and another tactical officer
kind of worked on me, and we talked more and more about the Air Force.
I eventually decided to go into the Air Force, not because I wanted
to fly, but because I thought the promotions would be quicker there,
which turned out to be a mistake. The Army had much quicker promotions.
But I decided to give flying a chance. I'd never had any real interest
in it up until then.
I was assigned to a small primary field down in Mission, Texas, lived
in Edinburgh, and drove thirty-five miles every day out to the field
to fly. It was an interesting time in my life. I'd never really done
any flying, and all of a sudden here I am in this small airplane with
an instructor in the back seat who's yelling so loud that even with
the airplane at full power, those on the ground could hear him. He
was kind of an interesting instructor. In fact, he went by the call
sign "Bendix," and the reason he was called Bendix is because
he washed out so many students. When I was there, he went through
eight students, and I think I'm the only one who graduated from his
table. So that gives you an idea how difficult this guy was.
But through all of that, I began to realize that flying was kind of
my game. It was a thing that I was very attuned to. I got involved
in all of the systems on an airplane. I really got wrapped up in how
you fly an airplane and what you do. I found out that the very best
part of the flying in that airplane, for me, was instrument-flying.
We'd go flying, and I'd put this hood over and fly only by instruments.
I suppose I fell into the instrument-flying part of aviation as much
because my instructor stopped yelling as for any other reason. He
was very calm, cool, collected. If I made a mistake, he was very cool,
he brought me back. I just took to instrument-flying like glue.
So I graduated from there, went to Laredo then for my basic training,
learned to fly T-33s, and from there I went to Tyndall Air Force Base
in Florida, which is in Panama City, and became an all-weather interceptor
pilot. But in all that time, it was only after I started flying that
I realized I had a knack for flying and that it was really the thing
that I could do quite well. So it was not that I ever looked up at
the sky and said, "Gee, I want to be a pilot. I want to fly.
I want to do this, I want to do that." It was that I kind of
drifted into it because of a couple of tactical officers I had at
West Point, and then once I started flying, realizing that I had at
least some gift for flying.
And this gift led you into another part of your career. How did that
Well, it did. I was assigned to an air defense squadron in Washington,
D.C., and it was one of those things where we're flying F-86Ds, an
old, old airplane. We had a lot of maintenance activity going on and
a lot of armament activity going on with these airplanes because we
were flying live missiles and rockets. I got very interested in the
maintenance side of things, because as a pilot, you really don't get
to fly too much. You can sit around the coffee shop and drink only
so much coffee, and you can only play so much ping-pong. There are
only so many things you can do to kill the time till you go fly. So
I got to hanging around the hangar, in the armament shop, and became
very involved in what was going on there.
One day the squadron commander came up to me and he said, "You
really seem to like that work over there. Would you take over the
section and run it?" So I did. At that time we were transitioning
into a new airplane called the F-102, and as we were going into the
F-102s, all of the electronics in the airplane changed, all the armaments
changed, everything changed, and we had what I would call a shade
tree kind of operation in the armament shop. So the very first thing
I decided to do was clean it up. It was always my opinion that people
who didn't have a clean work environment were not going to do clean
work. I insisted that everything be done absolutely correct, the way
it should be done.
So my first project was to clean up the armament shop, and I got all
the commercial suppliers, like Hughes Aircraft and Convair [Division
of general Dynamics] and the people that were supplying the airplanes
and the armament and all that, they kind of chipped in and we rebuilt
the armament shop. We tiled the floor and polished it, and we built
all new work counters, and we put in a false ceiling and air-conditioned
it. We did all the things that you would expect to see in a modern
repair shop today, but we're talking 1957 and 1958, a long time ago.
That program was so successful that the Air Defense Command came down
and asked me if I would come to Air Defense Command Headquarters to
head up a program there that would go throughout Air Defense Command
and get individual fighter squadrons to all do the same thing that
I had done in my own squadron. I thought about it and thought about
it and thought about it, and I thought, "If I'm going to sit
at a desk somewhere, I can better spend my time at a university than
going back to headquarters. It would do me much more good."
So I applied for [a civilian college advanced degree] and was accepted.
In fact, being in Washington, D.C….was a good thing, because
all I had to do is get in my car and drive for twenty minutes and
I was at the Pentagon. So I went to the Pentagon and talked to the
Civilian Institute Program people. This was in December. In January,
I got orders to go back to the University of Michigan. So I went to
the University of Michigan for a couple of years in what they called
the guided missiles course. That kind of led me into some test-pilot
work, and I ended up going to the Empire Test Pilot School in England
as a result of that. Actually, I did that because of two of the people
that were in the academic program with me, one was the deputy director
of the test pilot school at Edwards [Air Force Base, California],
and the other was head of academics at the test pilot school at Edwards,
and they both kind of pushed me into applying, which I did. I ended
up going to the Empire Test Pilot School in England for a year.
Then I came back to the test pilot school at Edwards and taught there
for, I guess, a year and a half before I got selected into the program.
It wasn't that I ever made a conscious effort to do any of these things,
but it was that I decided that if I'm going to do anything, it's going
to be to enhance my own ability professionally in some way. I thought
that going to test pilot school would do that. Test pilots are kind
of the top of a heap, if you will. Never really considered coming
into the space program because there weren't any selections being
made right then. Only after I got to Edwards and I'd been there for
a year and a half did they have a selection program, and that's what
got me here.
During the time that you were doing all this, of course, the Russians
launched Sputnik and actually the beginnings of the so-called space
race began. What were your thoughts during that time period? Do you
remember having any feelings of wanting to be part of a program that
might be able to catch up and surpass?
Of course. We talked about it, but it's one of those things, it's
like I'd like to win the lottery. And there are maybe one out of 180
million people that win the lottery. Yeah, sure, it's one of those
nice things to think about, but it's not something you say, "I'm
going to do that," because you recognize at the same time that
there are 20,000 others that are all trying to do the same thing.
So it's one of those things in the back of your mind and you work
toward it. I did. But never really expecting to get into the program.
I remember sitting in my fighter squadron back in 1961, before I went
to college, and Al [Alan B.] Shepard [Jr.] was making his launch.
As he was launching, we had one of our airplanes come back on an emergency,
and he was going to have to crash-land on the runway. So there was
a big discussion going on in the pilots' lounge about, "What
are we going to do? Are we going to watch this guy flying in this
little can up 250 miles for fifteen minutes, or are we going to go
watch Major Henderson crash?" Well, we all elected to go watch
Major Henderson crash, with the understanding that we could always
come back and watch the reruns of Al Shepard's first flight.
But, yes, we were involved in it. In fact, in those days it was a
lot of fun. Since we were so close to the Pentagon, we actually had
somebody from the Pentagon call one of our squadron leaders, or one
of our flight leaders in the squadron, to tell him that he'd been
selected for consideration for the astronaut program, and we kept
that fiction going for about two weeks. This guy was walking on air
about three feet high, having absolutely no understanding of what
it was he might be getting involved in. Finally we had to tell him,
but it was great fun to keep the fiction going for a while. But through
all of that, you think, "That's a great thing to do. I'd really
like to be a part of that," but at the same time you realize
that your chances of getting into that program are really few and
Tell us how it happened. How did you become part of that astronaut
five group and one of those nineteen people?
I tell you, I was very fortunate. I had the college background. I
had a couple of master's degrees from Michigan, could have had more
if I'd stayed a little longer. I had the experience of being a student
in the test pilot school in England, which then, and even now, I think,
for many things is a better test pilot school than the American school.
The difference was that in England we had to do everything by hand.
We didn't have all the fancy electronic recorders and all the this
and all the that, that they have out at Edwards. So if we had to test
an airplane, we had to take up—I took up a yardstick and a tape
measurer and a level, and I would carry up what looked like a pair
of pliers, but it was a hand-held force gauge. You could put this
thing against the stick and you could actually read the pounds of
pressure that you were putting on the stick as you were trying to
do a stall or something. The point is, everything was done by hand.
I thought that was very valuable training because you had to not only
consider what you were doing, think about what flight test, what trial
you were getting involved in, think about what you wanted to do with
the airplane, but then you had to think about the effect of the hand-held
force gauge, the measurement of the stick from the centerpoint. You
had to understand what the airplane was doing. You couldn't just fly
the airplane through a series of maneuvers and have it all recorded.
It's a little like so many of us are computer literate to the point
of typing commands into a computer, but if our computer crashes, we're
out of luck. We don't know what goes on behind that. We don't know
what happens to the CPU and hard drive and all that. What we're used
to is typing things and seeing it on the screen. I always felt that
was kind of the way we tested airplanes. That's not really true, it's
a whole different thing, but in a sense, in this country we tell a
guy, "Go fly an airplane, do this, do that, do the other thing,
go into a turn, pull three and a half Gs, maintain altitude within
fifty feet," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and we're going to
record all this stuff. In England, you had to do all of that in very,
very old airplanes…[and measure and record data by manual].
As you're pulling these three and a half Gs, you had to sit there
and read off the force that you were putting on the stick all the
way into that turn, which made a huge difference in how you approach
the handling of an airplane.
Then I came back to Edwards. As a matter of fact, it was kind of interesting.
I was committed to a three-year tour in England as a result of going
to the Empire Test Pilot School. In fact, the guy that was there the
year before me was Bill [William R.] Pogue, who was in the program,
and I'm sure there are some others who were after me, too, that I'm
not aware of. But I got assigned for three years to a basic research
flight test facility in England.
In November a month before our graduation, the U.S. test pilot school
came over for a visit. Chuck [Charles E.] Yeager was the commandant
of the test pilot school. Of course, my two friends that I had been
at Michigan with were there with him. Yeager got off the airplane,
saw me, came over to me and said, "We'd like you to come back
to teach at Edwards. We understanding you've done fairly well over
here and everything is good, so we'd like you to come back to teach."
I said, "Well, I'd love to, but I'm committed to this three-year
tour of duty over here, and I don't know what to do about that."
He said, "Well, let me take care of it." So he talked to
the commandant from the Empire Test Pilot School and they couldn't
make a decision. It ended up being the Secretary of State who made
the decision to bring me back, because the Americans were very, very
afraid of canceling out on an agreement that they had, but they finally
did. In fact, the British pushed them into it. They said, "This
guy's got to go back. He needs to go back. He's just the right guy
to do that."
So everything was arranged, and I came back in January, about six
weeks after graduation from the Empire Test Pilot School. I went to
Edwards and I taught. They had two levels of teaching at Edwards.
There was the basic test pilot course and then there was the space
[course], the research pilots' side of the course. The research pilots'
side of the course taught things like space mechanics, trajectory
analysis, [and] X-15 landings. …When we got into the airplanes
to fly them, we were teaching zoom maneuvers…[and] we were teaching
X-15 landings. We had a simulator that would simulate weightless conditions,
and you could put a guy in a—actually, it was kind of a simulator
for a guy in a suit, and he could get in this suit and get up in the
simulator and he could do all [the] extravehicular maneuvers from
the simulator as if he were in zero gravity. In fact, I was one of
the instructors when Gene [Eugene A.] Cernan and—let's see.
Who was the other one? Gene Cernan came over. And Charlie [Charles
A.] Bassett [II] came out to take some training. I was one of the
instructors that gave them their training.
But anyway, that got me into the space area. In fact, I wrote [some]
of the courses on the space side while I was there for that year and
a half, and taught them, and then also taught the flying side, too.
[T]hen the NASA selection…[program was announced]. This [was]
back in '65, and the Air Force had what they called the Manned Orbiting
Lab [MOL] Program. So the Air Force…[also published] a request
for volunteers to sign up for the Manned Orbiting Lab Program….
So there were two selection programs that went on at the same time.
There was the Air Force program and there was the NASA program.
…[We] could [apply] for either one or the other or both, and
many of the guys signed up for both. Well, that was fine, except when
you signed up for both, the Air Force took a look at you first, they
picked who they wanted, and then what was left over NASA could look
at. I said, "No, I don't think I want to do that," because
I was convinced that the Air Force would never get the Manned Orbiting
Lab Program off the ground, and if I went that way, it would be a
dead-end street. So I signed up for NASA only.
…[After a records review and first cut, the remaining 75] went
through a physical…[exam], and that cut the numbers down [even
further]. We [finally] came down to Houston in March of '66 for oral
and written exams and [to] meet the [selection] board…. That
was…the day we [took] those exams that Charlie Bassett and Elliot
[M.] See [Jr.] were killed in St. Louis. So we went through that,
through funerals and all that. That's why the time really sets in
my mind, because we're right in the middle of this review, meeting
the board and doing these written exams, and we get word that Charlie,
who was a good friend of mine—I didn't know Elliot, but Charlie
was a good friend—had been killed in St. Louis.
That was in March. Then in April, I got a call from Deke [Donald K.
Slayton] saying, "Hey, come on down," so we went down. I
think I…[arrived] here…[about] the end of April. The 26th
kind of rings a bell, 26th of April 1966, is when I…[got] here.
It's kind of funny, because you start out being just a basic pilot,
you do things to make your professional side better, you do better
at flying, you kind of rise to the top of all that, then you go off
to a test pilot school and you're back to the bottom of the barrel
again because everybody there is much more experienced and better
than you are. You go through all that, you eventually come to the
top of that. Then you get selected into the space program and you
show up down here. And I will never forget walking down the hall,
and everybody looking down their nose at me because we were the "greenies."
We're the green kids on the block, and nobody wanted to really have
anything to do with us for a while….
…I underst[ood] the game. You call yourself an astronaut when
you walk through the front door, because you've been selected, but
there's no way you are [a real astronaut] until you've made a flight.
…[Must] make a flight. If you're going to be an astronaut, you've
got to make a flight. So you realize very quickly how humbling all
of that can be, and you realize that, "Hey, I'm going to have
to work hard." There's only one way you're going to get out of
the group, the pile, and climb up on top somewhere.
And there were so many of you when you came down.
Well, there were nineteen of us, yes. I was number thirty-five in
the program. When we first got here, we got athletic clothes assigned
to us, to play racquetball, to work out, this and that and the other
thing. I will never forget mine was number fifty-five, but that was
everybody who had been in the selection programs, I think, because
there were only like thirty-five of us here at the time. It was a
pretty small group. I started out in a room with Paul [J.] Weitz and
my [final] office-mate ended up to be Jim [James B.] Irwin, and that
was it. I mean, we had the whole top floor of the building, and with
thirty-five guys we had…[for administrative purposes,] three
flights. Wally [Walter M.] Schirra [Jr.] had one flight, I think [L.]
Gordon Cooper had one flight, and I forgot who had the third flight.
It wasn't one of those guys.
And I got assigned to Wally Schirra's flight. It was just a kick.
I mean, I walked in to Wally…the very first day and said, "Well,
here I am." [Laughter] He says, "You've got to understand
something. You don't account for anything around here." Have
you interviewed Wally yet?
Yes, we've talked to him.
Well, he's a jokester from the word go. I mean, he's going to put
anything over on anybody he can. And I said, "Well, I'll tell
you one thing, I'm only a captain in the Air Force, but I know I outrank
a commander in the Navy." So from then on, he and I have been
great friends. He never lets me forget, and I never let him forget.
But we've been really good friends, and he was a great, great flight
That's where it all started…. You just say, "We're going
to work. We're going to work hard," and we did. Our group was,
I think, unusually aggressive in doing things and in training ourselves
and getting things done. For instance, they wanted us to go through…six
months' ground school first. That's the very first thing you do. You
sit in the auditorium all day long for like six months.
We'd been in there maybe a week doing all this, and I'll never forget,
three of us got together, Ed [Edgar D.] Mitchell, Charlie [Charles
M.] Duke, and myself, we got together and we said, "You know,
we can teach ourselves better than these guys. We know more about
it than they do." So we went to Shepard and said, "Hey…we
can do a better job than these guys can. We know a lot more about
it than they do." Shepard said, "Okay, go ahead and do it."
So we ended up teaching all of the technical stuff like orbital mechanics,
trajectories, and rendezvous and docking…. We sort of did that,
rather than the instructors that they had lined up. So we kind of
taught ourselves. I think as a result of that, we ended up probably
understanding it a little better than a lot of the guys did. I don't
One of the first assignments that you had was being part of the support
crew for Apollo 9. Could you share with us how that came about and
what were your responsibilities with doing that?
Well, we started out, actually, it was going to be Apollo 8. Jim [James
A.] McDivitt, Dave [David R.] Scott, and Rusty [Russell L.] Schweickart
were scheduled to fly on Apollo 8. The problem was that the lunar
module was not going to be ready on time, so, as I recall—I
mean, we're talking a few years ago, so my mind is not completely
sharp on all this—but as I recall, two decisions were made.
One was to slip the flight that was going to do the earth orbital
[module] lunar flight by one flight. The other was that since they
had to slip that flight, they'd use Apollo 8 to go around the Moon,
which they did.
…[T]he interesting part of all that was that the spacecraft
that was used on Apollo 8 was the one that I had hatched, if you will,
out in Downey [California]. I had…[worked on it] for a year
and done all the tests…and gotten involved with all the work
when they were putting it together, and I knew that thing inside out.
Of course, they're all pretty much the same, so that knowledge transferred
to the next one. But I started out on the spacecraft that was used
for 108 and then transferred. When all those decisions were made,
then I transferred over to the one that was used on Apollo 9. It was
…Jim McDivitt and I are from the same home town, so that made
it kind of comfortable for me. In fact, our parents only lived two
blocks apart in my home town. So not that we had known each other,
because he was ahead of me in college and all that, but we became
good friends. We're still good friends. He made life kind of happy.
We worked hard, but it was happy work.
One of the big tasks I had during those days was to go through all
of the docking apparatus for the lunar module and the command module,
to make sure that it was all working the way it should be. I can remember
spending a lot of time on the docking probe and how you get these
two…[machines] together, and writing all the procedures…in
addition to following the command module through the manufacturing
process out in California. That was very rewarding.
…In those days, when you…[were assigned to a] support
crew, it…meant that if you did your job and you did what was
supposed to be done…that would be followed by being a backup
crew and then being on the prime crew. …That's exactly the progression
that we made. I was support on 9, backup on 12, and prime on 15, and
that was the progression that was followed. There were…maybe
two crews in all of that time who actually made that full progression,
and we were one of them that went to 9 to 12, to 15. So it was great
fun. Being on the support…[crew] meant that actually I was on
the road every week in a T-38 going somewhere to do something for
the crew. The understanding, of course, was that the prime crew was
totally involved in training and doing flight plans and time lines
and procedures and all that, and the backup crew was going through
that with them, so what I'll call the dog work ended up with the support
crew, and they did all of the running and all the errands and do this,
do that. It was a great time. I really enjoyed that.
You worked with Fred [W.] Haise [Jr.] and Ed Mitchell at that time.
Share some of the tasks and responsibilities that you had as a unit,
or were you all separate and doing different of this dog work, as
you call it?
Basically…we all had different things to do. A support crew
was not a cohesive crew. It was just a group of three guys who did
the running for the prime crew, and we all did different things. Ed
Mitchell and Fred Haise spent more time in the lunar module….
They'd go off to Bethpage in New York, and I'd end up going to Los
Angeles and doing the tests out there. That's, of course, where I
got to know Dave Scott. But as a support crew, you're not necessarily
a team; you are three individuals. You end up being capcoms [capsule
communicators]…because you know the flight plan better than
anybody outside the backup crew. They're capcoms, too. But you know
it better than anybody else, so you end up doing a lot of capcom work,
and if…[problems] come up, you do some simulator…[time
to work out solutions].
…That's just kind of priming the pump in a way. That's just
kind of background stuff…. When you get to the next step, which
is the backup crew, you find that there's a…lot of [information]
that you have soaked up, that you've absorbed, that you…know.
…Especially after the fire in '67, [when] I spent…a year
and a half…[every] week…in California working on the command
module. So I really knew the command module. Jack [John L.] Swigert
[Jr.] and I knew the command module probably better than anybody,
because we were so involved in it. We knew where the wires went. I
mean, we knew where everything was. In fact, we ended up writing all
the malfunction procedures and doing all of that out at Rockwell,
or North American, and Downey.
Then Apollo 9 came along, and Apollo 12, same thing. I flew back and
forth to L.A. all the time with Dick [Richard F.] Gordon [Jr.], because
I was his backup pilot, and then we started getting into more and
more of the training and understanding what was going on. Probably
could have flown if we had to, but probably not totally comfortable
with it either, as Jack Swigert…was on 13. But it was just one
Now you're becoming, as backup crew, you're becoming more recognizable.
What's nice about it is, as a backup crew in 12, fly to Los Angeles
to go to North American Rockwell to work, you know where the rental
cars are, you know where the telephones are, you know where the hotel
is, you know where the front door is. You've already got a badge.
I mean, it's like, gee, this part's easy. That really made it, I think,
a lot easier for us to concentrate on what we had to do, rather than
be involved in a lot of details that had nothing to do with making
a flight. So that was just more training. Then, of course, as the
prime crew in 15, then you're the one calling the shots. It's kind
Let's, if we can, talk a little more about your role as a backup crew
on Apollo 12. At what point did you learn that you were going to be
joining or that you and Irwin and Scott would become a crew to back
up Apollo 12?
Gosh, you know, I don't even remember. I think Dave Scott came and
told me one day that he was putting a crew together and that he and
I and Jim Irwin would be the backup on Apollo 12. I don't even remember
the exact circumstance…when that was announced, but I do remember
that it was shortly after Apollo 9, because we had to get into the
cycle, that three-flight cycle from 9 to 12, rather quickly. In those
days, we were launching rather frequently, so we didn't have—I
mean, even today I think there's long enough time between flights
that that cycle is not as urgent as it was when we were there. So
we had like a year and a half to get ready for Apollo 12, then we
had another year and a half to get ready for Apollo 15. So it was
like three years altogether from 9 to 15 that that required us to
I think it was shortly after Apollo 9, although I don't remember the
exact dates, but I think it was shortly after that one, Dave came
and got Jim and I together and said, "Okay, guys. We're going
to be backup on Apollo 12, and if we keep our nose clean and we do
the right things, we should get a prime crew slot…down the road."
Must have been a happy day.
It was. It was. The program's interesting. I think it's got to be
different today than it was then. But I remember all through the support
crew, the backup crew, and the prime crew training days, it all used
to be when we were a year away from the flight, it was so easy to
decide that there [were] lots of things you could do on the flight.
The flight is kind of a dream that's still a ways away. It's not real.
Even when you become prime crew, your flight, the actual flight, is
not totally real to you. So you agree to do lots and lots of things.
Well, as you get closer and closer to the flight, to the launch date,
reality begins to set in, and you say, "Hmm. We're really going
to do this thing. This isn't just somebody's imagination anymore."
Then things begin to change a little bit and you get a little bit—I
won't say more serious, because we were always serious about it, but
you get maybe a little more practical about the things that you can
do. You get a little more practical about the information that you
don't have. You get a little bit more insistent on flying more launches
and reentries on the simulator. You get a little more insistent on
performing more and more maneuvers that you're going to make during
the flight. You're a little more eager to do all-up simulations with
mission control in the act, because that's what uncovers any weaknesses
you may have, and those are the things you need to know.
It's fun to think about them when the flight's two years away, but
it gets pretty serious when the flight's only a month away. So all
of a sudden you're faced with all this, and you say, "Thank God
I trained so hard all those years, because I'm relatively comfortable
and confident that we'll do the job." You end up with an attitude
that, "I don't care what happens on the flight as long as I don't
screw up." That's sort of the attitude you have.
Do you feel serving as part of the backup crew to Apollo 12 got you
into the position you needed to become the prime?
I think it was the only way. …I don't…know how the program
runs today, but in those days you had to start out on a support crew,
then a backup crew, and then to finally make it to a prime crew. You've
got to prove yourself. You've got to show that you know what you're
doing and that you can handle things. And they evaluate you as you
go through simulations and all the training you do.
[For] our flight, we probably trained a little differently than most
crews. We got so much of the technical training and background. Dave
was a slave driver, and he made us do a lot of things. He was a very
professional, very no-nonsense kind of commander…but he urged
us [to do more and more during training]. I mean, he kept leading
us on, "Let's do more and more and more." So by the time
we got to be prime crew, flying the spacecraft, we were already there.
We could have gone anytime. So we spent a big percentage of our time
learning lunar geology, learning astronomy, learning all the other
things, all the things we're going to see and we're going to look
at when we get out there.
I thank Dave for that. We were more scientifically oriented. …We
trained for our flight…[so] we could handle any malfunctions.
We could handle any problems. We could handle anything that happened
on the flight. …As long as we were on the nominal flight [it
would be] a piece of cake. If everything worked the way it was supposed
to, it's like getting in your car and driving down to the corner.
We trained on the things that could go wrong, and that's where we
concentrated. By doing that and already having the experience of the
backup crew behind us, the basic flying of this thing was relatively
straightforward. That gave us a lot of extra time to learn the geology
and the astronomy and everything else that we had to know. So we spent
a lot of time in the field learning geology, and a lot of time at
planetariums learning astronomy, and a lot of time spent with cameras,
learning our photography and doing the things that we needed to do.
And it showed up in the flight, because I think even today 15 is probably
considered the most scientific flight.
What were your thoughts when you found out that Apollo 15's designation
had been changed from an H to a J and there was going to be such emphasis
on all those scientific aspects?
Well, it posed some additional burdens [for] us, of course. The Lunar
Rover was…coming along, even though there were problems with
it. The scientific instrument module was being added, and that was
something that I had to learn, all the…[instruments that were]
in there, the mapping cameras, the big camera, the high-resolution
camera, all the scientific instruments that we used in lunar orbit
to measure whatever the atmosphere was, measure cosmic radiation.
There are a lot of things that we did.
Yes, that added an extra burden, but it also added a lot of excitement,
because we kind of felt like the program'…[was] getting mature.
We're doing the all-up program now. We're not just getting out on
the Moon and walking around for six hours and getting back in and
saying, "Hey, I've been there," and collect a few rocks.
Now we had to do some things.
Dave and Jim had the Lunar Rover and it gave them the opportunity
to drive…something like 17 or 18 kilometers around the landing
site. [They] couldn't have done that on foot; it's just too [great
a distance]. In the scientific instrument model that I had on board,
we did things that you couldn't do any other way. So it really became
a very scientific kind of flight, and kind of exciting.
Our purpose, I think between 14 and 15, the purpose of a flight changed
from getting there and getting back, to going out there and collecting
all this science. There was an end game here. There was an end purpose
to going. It wasn't just to go and come back. It was to go out there
and really do something scientific that was worthwhile, and I think
that's what we did.
You were chosen to fly the solo command module position, so how much
of your training and simulation did you spend away from Scott and
Irwin, and how did they prepare you to fly this orbiting lunar science
platform that had never been done before?
They had very little to do with the scientific instrument module [SIM].
That was…between myself and the prime investigators and the
flight planners, so that we got that all worked into the flight plan.
Dave, of course, had…an overview of everything. When the three
of us were together in…[the command module], Dave and I kind
of shared the [workload]. Jim didn't really have a lot of input, and
it's a function of where you are in a crew. Dave flew the lunar module,
I flew the command module, and Jim was kind of the systems engineer
for both, even though he got to land on the Moon. Jim had some scientific
things to do on the lunar surface, but very few things to do in the
spacecraft, in the command module.
So…what I'm saying is…I [planned]…the SIM bay activities…with
the principal investigations, with the guys behind the room over at
mission control who really were the ones who knew what was going on,
the technical guys, and the flight planners. We put all that together
and integrated it into a flight plan that included what was going
on on the lunar surface while I'm up there, and how we get in contact
and what we do together. But I would say basically of the SIM bay
activity, 95 percent…was mine. Dave and I did some of it together.
We did very little on the way home because it was really designed
for lunar orbit.
We did do some things…[from lunar orbit that] were very, very
interesting…[such as] map[ping] the lunar surface. I did that
mostly while the guys were on the…lunar surface. We ended up
mapping about 25 percent of the lunar surface with a high-resolution
The high-resolution camera, incidentally, was an interesting camera.
We could take pictures from 60 miles that…[had a] resolution
maybe down to 3 meters or something like that, which was pretty good
for those days. Turns out that the camera was an obsolete Air Force
camera, had been used in reconnaissance airplanes, and when the Russians
found out about it, they had a fit. So as a result of that, we were
restricted from turning the camera on until we got to the Moon. We
couldn't take pictures of the Earth with it. There was a lot of uncertainty
in somebody's mind that maybe we could take pictures they didn't want
us to see. Of course, what's silly about it is that those cameras
probably flew all over Russia in U-2s, and they knew it and we knew
it. What are they going to do about it? But that was one of the political
constraints that we had on our flight.
But the whole purpose of the lunar orbit activity is to understand
the rationale for the scientific investigation of the surface of the
Moon. You want something called ground truth. Ground truth is a rock
[that is found on the lunar surface]…. You pick up that rock…[look
at it] and you say, "All the other rocks around here are the
same or very similar." You analyze that rock in terms of its
chemical constituents. Then you figure out a way to measure the chemical
constituency in the rocks from lunar orbit, which we did with microwave
and a lot of other things.
Now you can take that ground truth, you take your picture from lunar
orbit, looking down at that same site, and you calibrate the two.
…From the data that you collected in lunar orbit, you can analyze
the constituency of the rocks all the way around the Moon, not just
in one location. So now you know what the entire surface of the Moon
is made of, not just a rock that you pick up in one place. This is
the basis of that kind of scientific investigation. That you've got
to have the ground truth to anchor your remote sensing, but once you've
done that, your remote sensing can tell you what you need to know
about the lunar surface. We did that with all the flights that landed
there, but we only had the high-resolution camera, the microwave,
and the infrared and all the other instruments that we carried into
lunar orbit…on the last three flights.
So the ground truth was very important in all this, and I'm sure that
in analyzing the ground truth and all that, there's a lot of juggling
that has to be done to make sure that it's all right. But that's how
you eventually figure out the makeup of the lunar surface all the
In preparation for your duties, you worked very closely with a lot
of people, including one that I think served as your mentor, Farouk
el-Baz. Could you share some of those experiences of learning from
Farouk is an interesting man. His life story is a book, and he should
write it some day. Farouk is, of course, Egyptian. He got his Ph.D.
at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. I think it was MIT.
And while he was there, he met a red-headed Irish girl, [Pat,] and
married her…and took her back to Egypt. The Egyptian Government
wouldn't recognize the marriage. They made her wait endlessly in lines
to try and get an Egyptian marriage approved…[with no success].
While she was doing that, they sent him out into the desert to train
soldiers. They made him an instructor in some training base clear
out in the middle of the desert.
Well, he was a petroleum geologist, and so as a sideline, even while
he was training soldiers, he worked for some of the oil companies
and he did a lot of [petroleum] investigations. He was very valuable
to them. One day one of the oil companies asked him if he would go
to Heidelberg University and give a lecture, and he said, "Sure."
The Egyptian Government let him go, and from there he went to Boston,
and he's been there ever since, except when he was with Bell Labs
training us. Brilliant man.
In fact, I know this dates this interview, but just within the past
few days there was a two-hour segment on television about uncovering
the tomb of the 1,000 mummies in Egypt. That's what Farouk does. He
is probably the foremost liaison between this country and the Egyptian
Government in all that kind of activity. In fact, he was on the show.
Wonderful man. Wonderful man. He's like a brother.
Farouk and I developed a very special relationship. He came down to
the Cape all the time. I'd go to Washington, he'd come down to the
Cape or to Houston or wherever, and we would train and train and train
and train and train. He made me memorize the name of every crater
there was on the surface of the Moon, and where it was and how it
got there, and what was happening to it, how the shapes got the way
In fact, Farouk named our spacecraft for us. I'd had these long discussions
with him about what can you name a spacecraft. All the good names
were taken, you know, Viking and all kinds of names like that. They
were all taken…. We probably went through a hundred names. Farouk
came down one day and he said, "In getting on the airplane at
Washington National, I happened to go into the bookstore and here
was this big book, a children's book, on famous explorers. We ought
to take a look at this, because there's a couple of names in there
that you might really enjoy." So we did, and Captain Cook's section
in there came up with Discoverer and Endeavour. I forget the name
of the third one now, but there were three ships that Captain Cook
had. Endeavour was the second one. When you read the literature, you
recognize that the Endeavour, the way we named our spacecraft, was
the English spelling of Endeavour. It wasn't the American spelling;
it was the English spelling.
So anyway, Farouk and I spent endless, endless hours training on the
lunar geology. I really felt that I knew the surface of the Moon backwards
and forwards. To show you what an interesting guy he is, we were talking
about the flight one day and I said, "Farouk, I'm going to be
up there for thirty-six revolutions by myself. I'd really like to
do something different. The program is getting…[less attention]—people
are losing interest. I'd really like to do something that would make
it personal, bring people into it, people all over the world."
He said, "What do you have in mind?"
I said, "Well, it would really be nice if I had a salutation,
a greeting that I could give everybody, and maybe do it in different
Well, he thought that was…absolutely fantastic. So he…[went]
off [to Washington], and he [came] back a week later…[with a]
salutation called "Hello, Earth, greetings from Endeavor."
He [has] it phonetically spelled in about fifteen different languages.
…We spent [a lot of] time practicing that than we did practicing…[the
phonetic phrases]. Every time I came over the horizon of the Moon…I
gave that salutation in a different language, with his phonetic spelling,
and it was a wonderful thing to do. In fact, it became the title of
a book that I wrote, with his original hand-printed phonetic spelling
as the centerfold in the book.
But that's the kind of guy he was. He was so good at accepting or
taking ideas, and he was so eager to do things, and he was so insistent
on everything being done correctly. He's still my mentor. I still
look up to Farouk. I don't talk to him as much as I should, as much
as I could, but he knows where I am and I know where he is, and we're
still good friends. He taught me what I knew about lunar geology.
He was to lunar orbit geology what Lee [Leon T.] Silver was to the…[surface
geology]. I think that's probably it pretty much.
How much did you know before you started working with him?
Geology? Well, my kind of geology on the Moon was different from surface
geology. Lee Silver taught all of us how to describe a scene. There's
a difference. If a meteor impacts the Earth, the way the material
is blown out of the meteor crater then, when the meteor releases all
that energy, converts all that motion into heat, and that explodes
upward and all this stuff comes up and lays back on itself. A volcano
just comes up and…spews stuff out; it's not laying back on itself.
So if you look at a feature, there's a big difference whether it's
volcanic or whether it's meteor impact and the way it lays out.
So anyway, we did a lot of that. Lee Silver taught a lot of that.
A meteor impact, as an example…lays back on itself…the
flap comes over and lays down on top of the ground that's surrounding
it. Right at the corner you should have the same kind of rocks both
above and below where that comes down, because you've taken the top
surface and laid it over the top surface of what was there before.
A volcanic crater, all you've got is stuff spewing out and settling
down. You don't have that regime of those zones of material that match
up. These are the kinds of things we learned.
But then with Lee Silver on the ground, you have to take the rock
and…analyze…[it]. Is there a crystalline structure to
it? Is it amorphous? …Whatever it happens to be. And you've
got to be able to analyze the rocks in terms of if I pick up this
rock here and then 1,000 yards over here I pick up the same kind of
rock, what does that mean? Okay? So you begin to develop a picture
of the scene that maybe there's a sedimentary layer that slices down
through the ground, and you can pick up a rock here, and you walk
along and you see the same rock. But then above and below it, you
get a different rock. So that says, yes, there's something that's
been upthrust and you've got these layers that go through it.
So you have to be able to analyze the rocks. Dave and Jim were very
good at that. They were as close to being a Jack Schmitt as you could
be. My kind of geology was different, though. I had to look at major
features. I'm looking at a volcanic…crater or a meteor impact
crater from 60 miles away…but there's no way I can look at individual
rocks. That gets back to why we had the ground truth, because if we
do our job correctly in lunar orbit, we're going to get a recording
of all the kinds of rocks that are around these features and then
tie that to the ground truth, we can make a picture of what it is.
So I looked at macro features, and Dave and Jim looked at micro features.
There's a difference in the kind of geology you look at. I'm looking
at what are the processes. Dave and Jim are looking at what's the
final product of the process. So that's where…[our observations
differ]. Dave and Jim went one way and Farouk and I went another way
to learn what there was to know about the surface of the Moon. Couldn't
have done it without him.
Your crewmates had somewhat of an advantage because they could walk
ground and they could pick up rocks and go through this, but you could
not actually do that in your position. How did you prepare yourself?
What kind of exercises did you and Farouk walk through that you could
learn to distinguish what you needed to distinguish on the lunar surface
from your position?
We did some flying. I don't recall that Farouk ever flew with me,
but I did that. If we'd go off on a geology field trip, Dave and Jim
would be down on the surface doing their thing with rocks, and I'd
be flying over the same area in an airplane, describing the general
scene, so that we'd get some correlation between the two. Farouk always
helped with those. He was always around. That was good training, and
it helped tie the two ends of this thing, the orbital and the surface
In all honesty, I think the geology that Dave and Jim had to do on
the lunar surface was more difficult than what I did, because they
had to distinguish between tens of different kinds of rocks, a hundred
different kinds of rocks. They had to know what they were looking
for. They found a rock on our flight that was called the Genesis rock.
I think they've later age-dated the dust around it older than the
rock, but it was called the Genesis rock at the time because it had
a crystal in it. It was a crystalline-structure rock, and the assumption
was that the original rocks that made up the Moon had some crystalline
structure to them through the cooling process. But that was the kind
of things that they looked for. They see a big chunk of rock somewhere
and they're looking at it with their little microscope, seeing if
there's any crystalline structure in it, and I'm looking at it from
60 miles away, saying, "What's that big boulder have to do with
the general scene around them?"
In fact, because of the kind of macro geology that we did from lunar
orbit, we were actually able to pinpoint a landing site for Apollo
17, and that was through visual observation. I…saw this field
of what I was positive were cinder cones. Until…our flight,
there was a big discussion in the geologic…world about [whether]
the features on the surface of the Moon were made by volcanic activity
or by meteor impact, and there…[were reputable] advocates [on]
both sides. It wasn't a clear-cut thing from what you can see looking
at the Moon from here. It's difficult to tell.
So there is this kind of age-old discussion about how the surface
of the Moon came to be the way it is. If there [had been volcanic
activity on]…the Moon…there would be…cinder cones
[as artifacts]…of [the] dying gasps of volcanic activity.
So I flew over [the lunar surface] and saw…[what] I was sure…[was]
cinder cones. They were just small enough that there was some question
about whether you could actually see them with the naked eye. …Your
eye can [see objects that] subtend [a very small] angle…[but]
from 60 miles away, supposedly your eye can't see objects smaller
than…[about 50 feet]. …[For instance,] your eye, from
Earth orbit, should not be able to see the Great Wall of China, but
a lot of guys have said they’ve seen it. That’s because
what’s now well understood about the eye is the eye can see
a linear feature. It may not see the width, but it can see linear
features. Anyway, [the fact that I could see, and pictures would verify
the presence of cinder cones was]…used as a basis for landing
Apollo 17…[at Taurus-Littrow].
So the lunar orbit observations were valuable from many aspects. One
was to [extrapolate] the surface [findings to large areas], and the
other was to find things that we didn’t know were there, like
the cinder cones. Of course, we took pictures of them and when they
got blown up, sure enough, there were cinder cones. I took them with
a high-resolution camera. In fact, I have a picture in my house of
a lunar module sitting on the lunar surface taken from 60 miles away.
It’s kind of an interesting picture. But the high-resolution
camera really worked well.
Share with us, please, the communication that you had with your crewmates
and how often that you were able to talk with them and how you were
able to use those precious moments of communication in telling each
other as much as you could.
Well, we didn’t really have a lot to say. Of course, the truth
of it is that we tried to eliminate activity in those parts of the
flight where I could talk to them. We did have some direct communication,
but most of our communications was through Houston. I’d make
a comment and Houston would transfer it back up to the guys on the
lunar surface. So they could get me. If I was in sight of the Earth,
then I could retransmit to the guys on the surface without any trouble.
We tried to set it up that I could talk directly to them, but that
only gave us a few minutes, because you’d go from one horizon
to the other fairly quickly. So there were only a few minutes, and
I had to be very quick.
In fact, when I took the pictures of the lunar module, had to be very
quick to do that because you go over them so fast, you’ve really
got to move that camera quickly so that you don’t get what’s
called smear. If you’re going over the surface…at [say]
5,000 miles an hour and you take a picture…[with] the shutter
open[ed] for, let’s say, one second, how far do you go in one
second? Well, at 5,000 miles [per] hour, you go…[about 7300
feet in one second and] if you have the lens open for…[1/100th]
second, that spot on the ground is going to smear…[about 73
feet] on the lens or on the film.
So you have to rock the camera to [steady] the picture [on one point
on the surface]. …What was so wonderful about [the] high-resolution
camera, [was] that [it did] exactly [that]. So we got these great
pictures of them down on the surface, but you’re only there
for thirty seconds maybe, and whatever you had to say had to be quick.
“Hey, guys. How are you doing?” “Fine. How are you
doing?” “Fine,” and you’re gone.
We didn’t have any technical information to share. We didn’t
really have any scientific information to share, because they’re
doing their thing, I’m doing my thing. So it’s really
like, “Hi, guys. I see you.” And you let the rest of it
go until you get together again.
Which you did.
And you were united and you were on your way home, but before you
came home, you didn’t stop but you managed to work in about
a forty-minute EVA. Share with us—because that was part of your
responsibilities—and tell us how that all happened and how you
trained for that as well.
Yes, we did the EVA on the way home. …[It] was [part of] the
J mission. In the scientific instrument module we had two cameras.
One was a high-resolution camera called the Balloptican camera, and
the other was a mapping camera, which didn’t take high-resolution
pictures, but it was instrumented such that you could actually measure
[linear features] on the…[surface with good accuracy]. Associated
with it was a laser altimeter that [measured] your exact altitude
above the surface. So it was a very, very valuable camera for mapping.
…[With precise altitude matched to the wrapping camera picture
allowed a very] detailed [and] accurate map of the Moon.
…[Those cameras were installed] in the SIM bay, and before you
come back through the atmosphere, you've [have] to get it out of there
[and into the Command Module] because the SIM bay doesn’t come
through the atmosphere very well. So it was my job to go…out
there, after we left lunar orbit on the way home, and bring these
two film canisters back inside. I had probably practiced that 300
times in the zero-G airplane and under water and every way you could
think of to practice that.
Kind of interesting that before we got assigned to the J mission,
or before they moved the J mission up, there’d already been
some preliminary work on how to get this film out of the SIM bay.
Of course, it had been in the pipeline for several years, and there
were a lot of schemes to get the film from…in the back of the
scientific instrument module all the way up into the command module,
[which was] a distance of about thirty feet. How do you get out there
safely so that you don’t lose it, so that you don’t hurt
something? There had been some things suggested.
One of the schemes was…an arm…on a hinge that would go
out and pick up the film and…bring it back…by the hatch
where you could pick it up. There was an endless clothesline. …[The
idea was to hook the film canisters] to the clothesline and…[reel
it in to the CSM]. I objected to all of those [schemes] once we [were]
assigned to the flight, [because]…none of them were very practical.
We actually proved it with the clothesline. It’s nice to think
about something like an endless clothesline with [a canister] hooked
to it, [so] you [could] just reel it in. But the truth [was], when
you’re in space and…[there is no atmosphere or gravity]
if that canister started to…bounce around, there [would be]
nothing to stop it. And sure enough, in a zero-G airplane one day,
trying to get this eighty-pound canister back into the command module,
the line [started] moving [sideways] and it moved enough so that the
eighty-pound canister…knocked the RCS [reaction control system]
quad right off the side of the service module. And all I could say
was, “You know, I told you.”
I worked out a deal. I said, “You know, let’s do this
simple. There’s [an easy] way of doing it. Give me a wrist tether
and a hook on it, and I’ll [attach] the canister [to] the hook
and…walk it back [to the CSM]. I don’t need both arms
to move. I mean, you don’t need anything out there to move.
I can work my way back with one hand and I’ll bring the canister
back in with the other hand, and if something should happen and I
have to let go of the canister, it’s on a wrist tether and it
won’t go away.” Well, we finally agreed to do that, with
a provision. …[Management] wanted a safety pin in the hook so
that [it] wouldn’t open on the way back. I said, “Okay,
that’s fair enough. So we’ll put a pin in it. After I’ve
got the canister and all that, we’ll put a pin in the hook so
it won’t come off.”
That was okay for about a week, and then they came back and said,
“Well, we’re just not sure that that pin is secure enough,
so we want you to put a cotter [key] in the end of the pin so that
the pin won’t come out.” Well, I finally had to do that….
Space is very simple to deal with if people just give it a little
thought. You start moving something, it’s going to continue
to move. You start something turning, and there’s nothing to
stop it from turning. We played games inside the spacecraft on the
way out, where we’d take something in the middle of the spacecraft
[and] start it spinning. And it’s amazing, it just kept spinning
and spinning and spinning. There are some Newtonian laws that apply
here. If you take a book and spin it, the book [will flip over] about
every second turn and it’ll spin and flip over again and spin
and spin. There’s some interesting dynamics to all that, but
the truth is, once you start something going, it’s not going
to stop. In the same way when you’re outside, you go out to
get the film and you bring it back in. If you put it on an endless
clothesline and it starts whipping, there’s nothing going to
stop it. So we did it the very simplest way we could, and it turned
out to be very…[straight forward and easy] to do.
The EVA itself was kind of unique. It’s sort of a unique perspective.
I did have a chance to stand up on the outside [of the SM] and look
[around, and]…I could see…the Moon and the Earth at the
same time. And if you’re on Earth, you can’t do that.
If you’re on the Moon, you can’t do that. It’s a
very unique place to be.
As far as the EVA itself was concerned, it was easy. There was nothing
to it. We had, again, practiced it enough so that it was kind of second
nature. We knew what we were doing. It was easy to set up. It was
easy to get everything organized the way it should be. I guess our
biggest concern was that we had everything tied down so that when
we opened the hatch, we didn’t have something go wandering off
into space. But outside of that, it was pretty easy.
Quite a voyage home to have that for a last view before you start
to head for home.
We had some fun on the way home. We did one experiment on the way
home which was a very unique experiment, and I think kind of started
the whole astronomy world thinking about things a little differently.
We did an X-ray scan of a portion of the universe, and we found that
in the data that we got back…there was a hole. …There
was one spot in that part of the universe we were looking at that
didn’t return any X-ray data. And that’s, I believe, considered
the first black hole that had ever been recorded. Now, of course,
we talk about them all the time. I mean, it’s part of our literature.
It’s part of our discussion about astronomy these days, but
it was really not known at all back in those days, that there was
such a thing as a black hole. I think we probably recorded the first
We also did our own navigation on the way home, which was another
change from the way things had been done. There was always a question
of, what do you do if you’re out at the Moon and you lose all
your radios? How do you get home? In the computer there was a return-to-Earth
program, but it left a lot to be desired in terms of its accuracy
and where it would leave you. So the question was, if we had to use
that program to start on the way back home, did we have the confidence
that we could do our own navigation to get us back to Earth safely?
So we did [the]…navigation on the way back home. I did…[many]
star sightings using the old tried-and-true sextant, just like the
ancient mariners…. We took Earth-star sightings, and we took
Moon-star sightings, and did…quite a [few] on the way home and
found that, yes, indeed, we could navigate accurately enough so that
the ground never had to give us an update on the way back home. They
kept monitoring where we were. I mean, they could download everything
and see where we were with…[the navigation program]. If we got
outside a certain parameter, outside some certain limits, then they
would send up a new…state vector, and we’d go from there.
But they never had to do that because we found that we could do it
quite well in flight. And that’s a good thing, because some
day we’re going to be going to Mars, and somebody’s going
to lose their radios, and it’s going to be very important that
they have the confidence that they could get themselves back home
if they had to. I think that there’s no question…[that]
We have the capability to navigate anywhere we want to go, I think,
on our own. I mean, we don’t need the ground to tell us where
we are. I [believe] we could go on our own, and I think that’s
another good lesson from the flight.
Also on your way home you were involved with a press conference that
was broadcast. How was that, knowing that what you were saying was
being broadcast and knowing that people were listening to you from
all over the world?
Well, yes, we knew that. Of course, we still had our TV camera, and
that was all set up and we…sat back and answered all the questions….
I guess we didn’t really understand the extent of the audience
that might be there, but it was kind of fun having a press conference
from [space], and it was fun showing people what it is like in zero
gravity. Of course, all the flights did that, too. Ours wasn’t
the only one, and they still do it. I mean, they have press conferences
all the time, even in the Shuttle. But it was a fun thing to do. It
didn’t last very long. I forget now how long it was. It was
maybe half an hour. I think Dave answered most of the questions….
God, it’s been thirty years since I’ve seen it, so I can’t
comment too much on it. I probably said something wrong. [Laughter]
You were on your way home, and as you started the return process,
there was a problem with the parachute.
That’s after we got back in the atmosphere. Yes, it was more
than a problem; it was a disaster. We came through the atmosphere.
We got down to 24,000 feet, and we let the drogue chute [out]. It
stabilized our descent and kept us with the big end down. At 10,000
feet we dropped the drogue chute and opened up the three main parachutes,
and [when] we got down to maybe 3 or 4,000 feet—I [was] there
in the left seat watching the chutes—[I saw] one of the chutes
start to billow. At the same time we [were] beginning to get calls
from the helicopters that [were] circling us that it looked like we
were losing a chute. Of course, we didn’t know what was going
We came down a little faster than we would…normally, but surprisingly,
not a lot more. …Instead of twenty-eight feet per second, we
were probably thirty-five feet per second or something. I don’t
know. It wasn’t much, though. We came all the way down, and
we still had two chutes when we hit the water. But before we hit the
water, I was already watching a second chute start to go. So we still
had two chutes when we hit the water, but another [few] seconds and
we’d have lost the second chute. We went quite a ways under
water, came back up. They lost the chutes; they sank.
But we know what happened. It was kind of a simple thing, and I guess
we hadn’t really considered it. The reason we lost the chute
was because the day was very, very calm. The procedure was, you get
on the parachutes, you know you’re stable, you know you’re
coming down, everything is fine. …[Then before you hit the water]
you want to…get rid of any explosive [RCS] fuel that you might
have on board. We had hypergolic fuels on board, which, of course….ignite
on contact…. We had these fuels for the reaction control system
in the command module. The idea was that we wanted to get rid of that
fuel before we hit the water, because if we should rupture some lines…these
fuels [could mix] together [and] we’d be in a nice bonfire….
So there was a procedure for releasing the pressure in all these RCS
…These fuels that we had are highly corrosive, and if they get
into a nylon chute, that chute’s gone. Very calm day, and as
we release this [fuel], it went right up into that chute and the chute
just dissolved…. I think it was probably the first time that
it happened in the program, because I think on every other flight
there had been some surface wind that [moved] the spacecraft…[horizontally
while it was descending. That meant that] when they [released the]
rocket fuel, it went off in back of them and they never had a problem.
It just got lost in the wind. But with us, coming straight down, this
stuff went straight up into the parachute, and there we had a problem.
It probably would have gotten into the second chute if we’d
been much longer. But we did go under water a little bit more than
most, but everything was fine.
I think Apollo 13 taught us that as much as we know about all of this,
we don’t know everything. It’s like education. I think
education probably is more humbling than anything else because the
more education you get, the more you realize that you don’t
know. Uneducated people often think they know everything, but the
more educated you get, the more you realized the things that you don’t
know. Well, I think the same thing is true in the space program. We
get very sophisticated about these things, but we also realize that
there are things we don’t know, and this parachute thing is
a good example of that.
Well, once aboard the rescue ship, the crew was treated a little differently
than any other crew before. You were not quarantined and you were
able to stay together. Could you tell us what background information
that you can about why that decision was made and what the procedures
That gets into the whole discussion about bacteriological contamination—back
contamination, it was called. Interestingly, Carl Sagan was the group
leader in that effort, and we had many, many discussions with him
about this bacterial contamination. Interestingly, he was worried
about us bringing contamination back from somewhere else. …Apollo
11, 12, [and] 14…didn’t [bring] anything…[back to
Earth], so they elected to do away with the quarantine on our flight….
We didn’t bring anything back. [However,] they were concerned
about us taking…[contamination into space].
So actually, our quarantine was a month before the flight, not after.
I think this bacteriological contamination, the whole thing is you
try and think of everything. You know, what could happen? And it would
be unforgivable if you overlooked the fact that a piece of material
brought back from the Moon might have a virus in it that could kill
everybody on Earth. I mean, you can’t conceive of that happening,
but we live in a universe that we don’t know anything about.
So all kinds of things could happen, and I think that was Carl Sagan’s
real concern, that we didn’t know what was there and how [could]
we take any chances? So that’s why all of this.
We didn’t have quarantine after the flight. I’m almost
convinced that quarantine was a good thing after flight…. [What]
we found [when] we got back…to Houston [was that we would] spend
our days debriefing for the first two weeks…. Then we’d
get outside the walls here at night, and there [were] people all over
the place wanting to talk. I mean, I had a hard time getting four
hours’ sleep a night. And then we [had] to be back over here
for debriefings the next day, and it was just a constant cycle.
Those guys who had to go into quarantine at least got a good night’s
sleep, and they probably bounced back much more quickly than we did.
But we were doing physical exams every day. We were doing debriefings
every day. We were running around doing this, doing that. We [would]
go home at night and [the] whole neighborhood [would be] up in arms.
They [would] all want to party and talk and whatever, and it’s
really hard to settle down in those conditions.
…Well, of course, on Apollo 13 again, here we had the measles
scare…and the impact that [it] had [on the following flights].
It impacted us because for that month before the flight we were isolated
from contact with anybody outside so that wouldn’t happen again.
And it never did.
So it’s interesting how things change as you get into the program,
as time goes on and you make a flight and you make another flight
and you find out things. So you begin to change the ground rules to
take into account the things that you didn’t realize at first.
I mean, conditions were different than you thought they would be,
so you've got to change things.
Were you involved in the scientific findings? Your pictures that you
took, were you able to watch these being developed or any of those
types of activities that are being processed afterwards? Were you
involved in, are the crew involved in any at all of the findings?
Yes, in fact, [for] much of the scientific data that was collected
in lunar orbit, I was considered a co-PI [principal investigator].
So many of the reports that were written had my name on them, too,
even though I didn’t do the analysis or write the report. I
collected the data. I worked mostly with a group of scientists out
of [Goddard Space Flight Center] Greenbelt [Maryland], and they kept
me informed. Farouk, [Isadore] Izzy Adler, [Jack Trompka] that whole
bunch, wonderful group of people. They would call and we’d talk
But the problem is, circumstances keep you away from that, too. We
got back. We did two weeks of debriefing. Then all of a sudden we’re
here, we’re there, we’re over to Europe, we’re to
someplace else, and for six months we’re out of the loop. We’re
doing the President’s [will], and that kept us away from a lot
of [the science]. I think Dave Scott might have been a little bit
more involved in it later on than Jim and I were, but I don’t
think any of us got so involved that we were really part of the scientific
discovery that went on after the flight. I think that’s a very
difficult thing to do because there are too many other demands on
your time. We weren’t really that kind of scientific investigator
anyway. These guys were looking at the minutiae of everything, and
we were looking at rocks, big features, and that kind of thing. So
it’s a different kind of thing.
The results of all the lunar orbit stuff, the lunar orbit experiments
that we did, from a scientific standpoint were very interesting, but
the interest is in the details and you have to understand the details.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t and I don’t think many of the
guys were smart enough to understand the details. We took the data,
and we knew what it was going to do, but the details were far beyond
So many years of planning and so many years of training took place
before the mission, and then after the mission you had your presidential
tours and your press conferences. What were your next duties that
were assigned to you then after you returned?
We were assigned…as a backup crew on Apollo …. [All
flights after Apollo 17 were cancelled] so there really wasn’t
much left. We probably could have made the decision to hang around.
…[This was] now late ’71, early ’72. [We] could
hang around for the Space Shuttle. The Skylab Program had already
been filled. Apollo-Soyuz had already been filled. So the next real
program that came along was the Shuttle Program, and that was ten
years away. I think most of [us], even Dave…said we're just
not going to hang around for that. I [didn’t] need to cool my
heels for ten years waiting on another flight. There were guys that
were in my group who had not made a flight up to that point. They
had no choice. They really had to stay, stick around for the Shuttle.
But I’d made a flight and I didn’t need to. So [I] decided
that it was time to leave, much as I loved this place. There were
bigger and better things.
I guess I’m a little different than a lot of pilots. I’m
not a pilot because I just love to go burning holes in the sky. I
think being a pilot means it gives you the opportunity to go someplace
and come back. An airplane is a transport. An airplane is like a car.
It’s a device for transportation, and you go somewhere. You
do something when you get there, and then you come back. A lot of
people I know just like to go up, and they’ll fly around the
flagpole for two hours and say, “Gee, what a great day. I went
flying for two hours.” Well, that’s pointless to me. So
I couldn’t see hanging around for ten years just to fly again,
you know. I suppose, looking in hindsight, that ten years might have
gone pretty fast, but I don’t think so. So I transferred out
to Ames and headed up a division out there, and I did that until I
retired in ’75.
And what were your responsibilities there?
Well, I started out working in the Airborne Science Group out there,
which was kind of like what I did in lunar orbit, except it was…[accomplished
with] an airplane full of scientific instruments. We…[did] earth
resources surveys and all kinds of in-flight experiments. In fact,
it’s the airplane that monitored the ozone hole in Antarctica.
They flew through it and took readings on the ozone, and it’s
the same airplane that does that.
[As] part of our duties…we did a lot of infrared astronomy.
In fact, I was part of the group that flew the astronomers out there
at Ames [Research Center, Moffett Field, California] to [conduct]
infrared astronomy, and that was both fun and interesting. I [also]
did [some] flight tests out there. We did a lot of [aircraft] zero-G
work with biological experiments. …One [was] called the frog
otolith experiment…. And you just watch, you take pictures of
what happens to [the] fish eyes, when they’re in zero gravity
as compared to being in 1-G gravity. Eyes do react a little differently.
These are all part of the scientific investigation for long-term space
flight. We did a lot of that.
I then headed up one of the directorates out there called the Systems
Analysis Division. We did analyses and assessments of future programs
and plans…. It was a group that used to be in Washington, and
they…[were relocated outside] of Washington because of the politics.
They decided to get them as far away as they could so that congressmen
couldn’t just call this group and say, “Hey, I’m
pushing this certain technology. Make it look good.” So they
moved it out to Ames. I headed that division for, I guess…two
[or] three years. Ultimately…that was one of the divisions that
got caught in a scale-back…at NASA, and so [it was] disbanded.
Then I took over the Airborne Science Division that I had worked in
before. In fact, we had three U-2s and a couple of DC-8s and quite
a fleet of airplanes…. It makes up the backbone, I guess, of
the NASA fleet, if you will, on the West Coast today. They do a lot
of very, very good scientific work. It’s an amazing program.
In fact, you can actually do a better job from an airplane than you
can from space, I think, because you’re closer. You can get
better resolution pictures, and you can get better data, and if you’re
flying along and something goes wrong, you can fix it. There are a
lot of advantages to doing it in an airplane.
NASA had…a program called LACIE, which is the Large Air Crop
Inventory Experiment. They were trying to inventory and analyze crops
in Russia, and what they wanted to find out, was this year’s
crop going to be good or bad…. [It] was a satellite program.
We did the same thing with U-2s and we had a very simple small computer
program to analyze all the data, and we got better results than LACIE
did, simply because we were closer to it. You could get better definition
in the data from the lower altitude of an airplane than you can from
Space is a difficult environment to get…fine detail on Earth.
We’re getting closer and closer to doing that, but it’s
all compromises. It all depends on what you want. If you’re
at orbital altitude, let’s say, 120 miles up, you’re traveling
at 17,000 miles an hour, and you [have] a camera that’s looking
down [at] the ground. It’s that same thing we were talking before.
If you open that shutter for even a hundredth of a second, how far
have you traveled in a hundredth of a second if you’re going
17,000 miles an hour? And it’s that simple. So if you’re
in an airplane, you can compensate a lot easier because you’re
not going as fast.
You mentioned you retired from NASA in 1975. Do you feel like your
career was affected in any way by the controversy that surrounded
with the stamps issue and the Apollo 15 crew?
Oh, I knew you were going to bring that up, Rebecca. [Laughter]
Well, we wanted to hear your perspective on that.
…I’ll tell you that everything I carried on the flight
was on the manifest—everything. There was nothing in my suit
or in my kit or anywhere around me that had not been approved by Deke
Slayton. …There were some covers carried on the flight. There
were 100 covers carried by Dave that we had agreed…to take.
I had assumed they were on the manifest, but I’m not sure they
ever were—that were going to go into our kids’ educations,
you know, the proceeds. But there were going to be nothing done until
the program was long, long, long gone.…
Well, unbeknownst to Jim and I…Dave had another 300 in his pocket,
and that created quite a flap. It was unfortunate for a lot of respects.
One thing I found out from that episode was how little NASA management
cared about us, how they were just delighted to get rid of us if they
could. I learned that NASA management was pretty gutless. Some senator
or some congressman asked the question, and they caved under right
away and tried to get rid of us. Nobody stood up for us. Nobody.
What was interesting is that they had just gone through the same thing
on Apollo 14. The Apollo 14 issue was golf balls, not covers, but
it was the same thing. …They had just been through that. It’s
unfortunate that they never went any deeper than what was public knowledge
at the time. …They never looked at Apollo 11 or Apollo 10 or
any of them. If they had looked pretty carefully, I think the whole
thing might have changed. But there was some pretty self-concerned
management. They didn’t want to get tarnished by the brush,
so they were only too happy to dump it all on our back. I won’t
say what was done was right, but I think the reaction was overdone.
And in light of what’s happened in the last few years, I think
that that’s a correct assessment. It’s coming to light
now that we may have carried fewer covers than lots of other flights.
The difference was that their carrying those covers didn’t become
public knowledge and ours did.
I don’t know how much of the story you know, but after all this
happened…[all the covers were stored] in the National Archives…[without
a legal hearing] That constituted as taking our property without due
course of law]. We probably didn’t do the smartest thing in
the world, but we didn’t do anything that was illegal. We didn’t
do anything that anybody else hadn’t done, but the consequences
were rather severe to us.
I took it upon myself in [April 1983]…to sue the government
to get my [covers] back. …[It took about a year until] the Justice
Department finally determined that what NASA had done was totally
wrong. The only request they made of me was that if they gave my stuff
back, would I drop [the lawsuit] at that point and not do anything
further. I didn’t know it at the time, but if I had wanted to
do anything other than just get the covers back, I could have sued
for damages and would have won. I don’t know about the rest
of the guys. I think you have to sue. …The Justice Department
asked me if I would be the spokesperson [for all the astronauts],
I would be the focal point for everybody and that they would give
everything back through me to whoever owned it.
So, yes, I became the focal point and went to Washington and signed
all kinds of documents and got all the [personal artifcats] back and
made sure that everybody got their[’s] back. …[The] guys
in…[Apollo] 16 and 17 had the same problem. NASA had all their
[belongings] locked up, too. …It was a little cowardly, I think,
of NASA management. I have fairly strong feelings about it. I don’t
know that I would have stayed here even if that hadn’t come
up, because…looking down the road ten years, just wasn’t
my cup of tea anyway. But that certainly helped accelerate the move.
And you moved onto a different venture with Jim Irwin. Is that correct?
Well, not really. ….Jim and I were always very close. Jim left
and…started High Flight Foundation in Colorado Springs. I was
getting ready in ’74 and ’75 to retire, and just about
that time Jim had a massive heart attack. I was on his board.…
Jim[’s]…heart attack…was going to [keep him] out
of action for a while, so he asked me to take over all of his public
appearances till he got back on his feet…. So I think because
of that and because of the fact that I was on the board of High Flight
Foundation, people associate me a lot closer with Jim than I was.
He was a dear friend. I would do anything for him. I covered for him
when he was sick, when he had those heart attacks, but I wasn’t
ever in the religious movement the way Jim was, or the way Charlie
[Charles M.] Duke [Jr.] is. That’s just not my nature.
I think what Jim did was good, but I think he got so obsessed with
it that it really changed his life. I could never do that, but for
years I was on the board….
[I was] very close to the minister that helped Jim put it all together.
His name is [Bill] Rittenhouse. He’s a wonderful man. He was
the Baptist minister across the street here for a long time. In fact,
he built [the] Baptist church [in] Nassau Bay. He was also a B-24
bomber pilot in World War II, and he was shot down over Romania during
the Ploesti air raid. He was in the Romanian prison camp for the rest
of the war. He didn’t want to be a preacher, but his dad was
a preacher, and he knew the Bible, and so he [was] forced into service
by the prisoners that were in the camp.
Then the Romanian commandant found out about him and came to him and
said, “You’ve got to be the chaplain for all the other
POW camps around the area.” So [the commandant would] come [to
Bill] every Sunday and put [him in] a Romanian military officer’s
uniform…and off they’d go through town. The commandant
would go with him, and they’d go to all these camps. Rittenhouse
would give a sermon, and then they’d go sit in the park and
chat and have a good time. Then he’d take [Bill] home, [where]
he’d take off the uniform and put on his prison garb again.
He did that every Sunday. In fact, about ten years ago he went back
and had a reunion with the guy. So it was quite a nice story. He wrote
a book called God Is My Co-pilot, which I think was made
into a movie. He's a very nice guy. Anyway, he’s the guy that
helped Jim set up High Flight Foundation, and they all moved to Colorado
Well, you and Jim shared one thing, or more than one, but one for
sure thing in common on the mission is the first time that you both
had flown. Did you have any apprehensions about sitting on the launch
pad before you took off, or you felt like you were fully trained and
you were just ready to go?
…To refresh my mind, I’d have to go back and look at the
EKGs [electrocardiographs]. It would be interesting to find out what
my heart rate was, sitting on the launch pad, because I don’t
remember it going up very much. I think it probably did a little bit.
I don’t remember being particularly nervous or anticipating
anything or really being concerned about it.
I do remember that the night before launch, my whole family was down
in Melbourne [Florida] and there was…a pre-launch party [that]
they [attended]. I remember talking to them at the party and giving
them a little talk and thinking at the time, “This is my goodbye.”
I mean…I may not come back. So, “So long, everybody,”
and I don’t expect to come back…. If I don’t come
back, I guess the compensation is that you’ll be known forever.
I think the three guys at the Cape in Apollo 7 or Apollo 1 fire, their
names will be known forever. The Challenger people, maybe
not quite as well, because there were so many more of them, but I
think anybody who got lost on a lunar flight, especially if you got
lost at the Moon somewhere, I suppose that's…compensation? I
don’t know. …But I wasn’t worried about it. I was
not worried about not coming back.
I figured that if something happened on the flight, chances are, we’d
be able to work around whatever the problem was. And if we couldn’t
work around the problem and we’re dead ducks, then that’s
the way it is. That’s what explorers do. That’s what test
pilots do. We all take that risk every time we step out our front
door every morning. It’s just that we’ve got an event
going on here which kind of puts a lot of focus on it. But I guarantee
you, more test pilots die testing airplanes for this country than
have ever been lost in the space program, and they accept that challenge.
They accept that risk.
I actually thought that I’d figured out the Eastern mind, that
what’s going to happen is going to happen, and you approach
whatever’s going to happen calmly. If something goes wrong in
flight, if you’re not calm, you could probably make it a lot
worse. So your best chance of survival is to be calm, react calmly,
get your checklist, go through it, do what has to be done. But if
you panic, you’re probably going to be dead…anyway, so
it doesn’t pay to get excited. In fact, it can harm you, and
you just sort of train yourself that way. You just say, “This
is going to be okay.” And if we blow up ten seconds into the
flight, as long as I didn’t cause it to blow up, that’s
the way the game goes. I just wouldn’t want to be the one to
cause it, that’s all.
Is there a time in your career especially preparing for this mission
that you found to be the most challenging, that might have tasked
all your enthusiasm or all your ambition where you thought, well,
maybe you’re in the right place at the right place, maybe you
didn’t make that right decision of becoming an astronaut?
No, I never had that [feeling] in the astronaut program. I did in
the Air Force. I very seriously considered getting out of the Air
Force at one point because I was very unhappy with the quality of
the people I saw around me. I’m not a snob, but…maybe
half of the pilots in our squadron were guys who just liked to fly.
That’s all they wanted to do, just fly. They’d go up and
go around in circles. They didn’t care, just wanted to fly.
And yet the Air Force is a lot more than just flying.
The Air Force is a hierarchy of management levels that have to decide
how we’re going to [do] certain things…. If we go to war,
they've got to organize it and manage it. You can’t just be
satisfied with flying, that’s what I’m saying, if you
really want the Air Force or the country to be where it’s supposed
to be, and yet half the guys in my squadron were just pilots. That’s
all they wanted to do.
I used to write to my old tac [tactical officer] at West Point and
say, “This is really awful. I’m working for guys who don’t
even have a college education…." They graduated from high
school. They were World War II guys, young eighteen-year-old World
War II guys who got in the Air Force, went in the cadet training program,
never had any college. Some of them didn’t even graduate from
high school. Here we are, in 1957, twelve years after the war, and
they’re captains and majors, and they don’t like young
guys with an education coming up and pushing them from below.
So there was this kind of a division, and I used to get very discouraged
and write [my friend] and say, “You know, I just don’t
think this is for me.” He said one thing that made me stay in
the Air Force and do what I thought had to be done. He said, “If
you get out of the Air Force, you’re just going to leave it
to them.” I thought about that, and I said, “Yes, you’re
probably right. Somebody’s got to be around when these guys
are gone, to do the job right. Whether that’s me or not, I don’t
know, but if I get out, it sure as hell won’t be me." So
I stayed in.
Never really had that in the astronaut program. I loved it. It was
a great thing to do.
Do you have a specific time or a significant moment of accomplishment
during your astronaut career that you feel is the highlight of your
program? What would you consider your most significant accomplishment
in your career with the space program?
Hard to tell. The flight was probably the most significant thing in
the program. Intellectually, I think there may be more significant
things done outside the program. Going to the Moon [was] like flying
an airplane. It’s a skill that you learn. It takes some knowledge.
It takes some analytical ability if something goes wrong, but outside
of that it’s like driving a car…it’s a skill-oriented
thing. So I kind of divide what turns me on more into the intellectual
side than maybe into the skill side.
Doing some of the things I did at Ames were probably more intellectually
stimulating to me, but the pure thrill of doing something was making
the flight. That had to be—I don’t want to say it’s
a high point. It was a significant point of event in my life. I think
learning to fly initially was a high. Going to test pilot school was
a high. Making the flight was a high. But I have a hard time differentiating.
I went to a test pilot school…in England. I lived with the English
people. I lived in the countryside. I was in a group of thirty guys
that were Royal Navy, Royal Army, Royal Air Force, Indian Air Force,
Italian Air Force, French Air Force, Canadian Air Force, Australian
Air Force, and three of us from the States. Wonderful environment.
Wonderful atmosphere that we had there. Just met all these different
people from all over the world. That was a high to me.
Yes, the flight was a high, but it was a high in a kind of different
way, and I would not say that it was the high point of my life. I
think there are other things in my life that I consider more significant
from an intellectual standpoint.
Even losing something sometimes is more significant. I ran for the
U.S. Congress in 1982 down in Florida, and I lost, but that was a
very significant thing for me. I thought that was one of my better
attempts at something. I probably should have [run] again, but I didn’t.
I decided that once was enough, and I’d lost too much money
in that. But I really think that was a great thing to do, and I’m
proud of that, even though I didn’t win.
So there are lots of highs, but they’re all kind of different
categories. Some of them have to do with doing things, driving cars
and flying airplanes and things. And others have to do with…what’s
going on in this country and what’s important to us and where
should we be going, the intellectual side of things, and those were
just as important to me.
An interesting change of pace for you to be part of the Congress and
having insider knowledge of how NASA’s run as I was curious
earlier in our conversation of how you must have felt when you learned
that Congress had canceled the rest of the Apollo program at a time
not too long before you were getting ready to fly.
Oh, I don’t think it was Congress that canceled it. Maybe you
have more information than I do, but I think it [was] NASA management
[that] decided to cancel the last three [flights], for a lot of reasons….
They wanted to put the money into the Shuttle program for one thing.
But number two, and primarily, we’d [had] six landings by the
time 17 finished. We had not lost a crew. Every flight was more successful
than the last one. Any more flights, the only thing that could happen
somewhere along the line is we could lose one. I don’t think
NASA management was willing to stand up and be counted and say, “Yes,
that can happen, but we need to do it anyway.” And maybe we
didn’t need to do it. Maybe six flights was enough to find out
what we needed to find out. But I do believe that a major part of
the consideration that canceled those last three flights was NASA
management’s concern that we might lose somebody in flight.
While you were part of the program, you worked with a variety of personalities
and people, some very close and some very casual. We talked earlier
about the Apollo 12 crew that you worked so closely with. Could you
tell us some times that—how you got to work so closely with
them? They were, of course, an all-Navy crew, I believe.
Yes, and we were all Air Force. So we were the perfect backup crew.
They had their cars painted gold and black, and we had ours painted
red, white, and blue. So [whatever] they did we…did the same…thing.
They were a wonderful crew.
Dick Gordon at the time was probably my closest friend because I did
everything with Dick. He was the prime command module pilot, and I
was the backup command module pilot. We went everywhere together.
We were in an airplane every week together, and we had fun, even though
we were working hard. We had a lot of fun. Dick is a great, great
I probably did more things outside the program with Pete than with
anybody, certainly than with my own crew. Pete Conrad and I raced
cars down in Florida together. We had a little team we had put together
down there, and he and I and a fellow by the name of Jim Rathman would
go racing through Florida and with little Formula Vs, and we’d
have fun on weekends…. We’d meet at the Ontario Speedway
in California, and Pete would be racing in the big race, and I’d
be driving a little Formula V around. …We had that in common.
I didn’t know Al Bean that well, but certainly I was very close
to Dick, still am.
I was a lot closer to Pete, although Pete’s the kind of guy
that’s got a million friends, or was. Everybody knows Pete,
and so it’s hard to be close to Pete because he’s got
so many friends. He was a unique individual, very unique. He was a
good commander. He took care of his crew. Their crew was very cohesive.
If one of them did something, they all did it. They were very close-knit.
Our crew wasn’t like that. We were not close-knit at all. In
fact, we didn’t always see eye to eye on a lot of things, and
so we weren’t so tight that we all had to do the same thing.
But Pete and his crew were, and it was a kick watching them drive
down through Cocoa Beach, these three cars all gold and black, one
right after the other, and they’d pull up there in the parking
lot somewhere, one, two, three, and, you know, they were like the
Three Musketeers. They were…known by everybody. Pete…was
outspoken.… He was the guy that kept everybody in stitches and
had funny talk…. It couldn’t have been a better crew to
be backup for….
Soon you’ll be celebrating another anniversary of your mission.
Is there something that, when you look back on Apollo 15 as a whole,
that you want people to know that your mission stood for?
Yes, and I think it’s kind of recognized by a lot of people
that even with all the problems with postal covers and all that, Apollo
15 still comes through as the most…successful scientific flight
of the entire Apollo program. I think we did more science. I say "science."
I use that term like there’s a shovel out here that you’re
piling it on. But I kind of feel like we were more dedicated to the
science. We tried to do more than we were capable of doing, and generally
we did more. We accomplished everything we set out to accomplish.
A couple of days before the flight, we were sitting and looking at
the flight plan and saying, “Wow. We’ve really got a lot
of stuff in here. You sure we can do all that?” We were saying,
“Well, it’s easier to take it out than it is to put it
in, so let’s leave it, and if we’ve got to let something
go, we’ll let it go.” Well, we didn’t let anything
go. So we ended up doing [about] 115 percent of the assigned objectives
we had on the flight.
Yes, I think that’s a good mark. We had a good flight. We did
what we were supposed to do. We brought back so much data, they’ll
never get through it all. I just think we did a better job of the
science than any other crew. As far as getting there and getting back,
what can I say? We had so few problems that it was like flying to
…I think our analysis was correct in that the science was really
the objective of our flight, and that’s what we did well.
Before we close today, I definitely wanted to ask you if there was
some aspect of your career or some topic that we haven’t covered
yet that you would like to talk about before we close out or is there
any comment you would like to make, so that we can include that as
well on this oral history.
…We’ve sat here now for a couple of hours talking about
Apollo 15, about the crew, about the Apollo 12 crew. We’ve talked
all about the crews. We’ve not said anything about the people
down here on Earth that made it all happen.
There’s kind of a philosophical discussion going on about who
was in control of each flight. Was it mission control, or was it the
commander on the flight? That could be a very serious kind of discussion
if it ever got out of hand.
It’s quite clear to me that we could not have made the flight
without the people in the mission control room. There is just no way.
…You cannot make a flight like that work if you don’t
have the guys in mission control, and you can’t make a flight
like that work unless you [have a] crew on board. So there’s
a synergy between the two, mission control and the crew, and it’s
immaterial who thinks they’re in control at the time….
[I’ve read] words from some of the mission controllers that
they were in control. Then I see comments from some of the flight
commanders that that’s not true. Just go back to Wally Schirra’s
flight of Apollo 7 where he told everybody what they could do and
[that] he [would] do his own thing, and it’s the commander who’s
in control, and he’s going to do what he has to do or wants
to do. That’s all nonsense stuff.
NASA for years and years and years—it’s been over forty
years now—has just put together probably the best all-around
crew the world has ever seen to do these kinds of things. That includes
the crew and the people on the ground. And it’s not just the
people in mission control. It’s the flight planners, it’s
the suit techs, it’s the crew personal equipment people, it’s
everybody that gets in the act to make a flight possible. You couldn’t
do it without all that.
I think it’s wrong and I think it’s harmful to try and
put the emphasis on one or the other and say, “You weren’t
in control. I was.” I just don’t think it’s right.
We've got a wonderful crew on the ground here, and I think they’re…unsung
[heros]. I think they’re not given the credit that they’re
due. We tend to focus on the crews. I don’t think we focus on
the crews today as much as we did thirty years ago because there’re
so many more of them, but at the same time I don’t think we
focus on the mission controllers anymore today than we did thirty
years ago. They’re in the background, and they’re kind
of [unappreciated]. I think that’s what’s unique about
this program, what’s so wonderful about it.
It’s definitely a team effort. There were times we didn’t
talk about it, maybe we can now, that you served as capcom.
And you were a bit a part of that whole atmosphere with the flight
controllers. Could you share some of those experiences with us?
Yes. As a capcom, you do get into the mission control atmosphere.
As the pipeline to the crew, nothing happens that gets to the crew
that you don’t facilitate. So you do have a certain edge over
everybody else in Mission Control. You can say, “No, I’m
not going to tell them that,” or you can say, “Yes, I’ll
tell them that, but I’m going to tell them in a different way.”
You can change what’s going on. …A capcom could [challenge]
the flight director…if he really, really got upset about something.
But your work—it’s a team effort, so you don’t.
[The] capcom [was] not the guy who decided what [to do]. The flight
director…[or] mission director [does], whatever we want to call
him. But I think everybody in that room has to be mindful of the fact
that the capcom is part of the crew, not part of mission control.
He is the mouthpiece for the crew, and he’s the funnel for mission
control to get information up. So, again, it’s kind of a symbiotic
relationship between the crew and capcom and mission control as to
how all this gets done, and one can’t exist without the other.
I remember, heck, we had three, four, five capcoms all at one time
in there. You know, mostly it’s guys that have decided that
they want to get down on the floor there and see what’s going
on and they’re not going to talk to anybody, guys who have already
flown. Generally, the guys who flew the last flight are sitting in
the mission control room a lot of the time because…they just
did it, so it’s fresher in their minds than anybody. They were
there. So they’re there in case anybody needs them, and the
capcom could ask them a question or say, “Hey, Dick, what about
this," or that or something else. Or, "How did you do that
on your flight?” and maybe sort some of these things out. Read
Gene Kranz’s book.
That’s a good book.
It’s a good book.
And I think we need some more books like that, from that perspective.
One of the things that we learned, too, by doing research is so much
of what the astronauts, or astronauts who have not flown, the assignments
that they have, and you mentioned one of yours was to be out in California
after the Apollo 1 fire. Could you elaborate a little more and tell
us about what part of those duties were, and how you were able to
help solve that situation?
Well…they assigned, after the fire…a team to basically
reinvent the command module. …The fire was not caused by the
hatch, but the hatch is what cost the three lives, because they couldn’t
get [it] open. The fire was caused by an electric spark inside that
touched off all the foam rubber they had inside in a pure oxygen environment.
It’s like an explosive, and the guys didn’t have a chance.
So they put together a team headed by Frank Borman to reinvent, if
you will, the spacecraft. We came up with the hatch that’s on
it today, or that was it till they quit using it, that opened only
outward. The original hatch, you had to pull the hatch inside, put
it against the frame from the inside, and bolt it down. That provided
the pressure seals. If you get in space, you [have] pressure inside
the spacecraft, you [have] zero pressure on the outside, and that
pressure inside is helping to maintain that seal.
The problem is if the pressure goes way out of sight inside, you can’t
get that hatch open. …The pressure vessel on the spacecraft
burst at about 32 psi, something like that. I mean, it was astronomical
in terms of what it should have been. That had to be redesigned.
We looked at all the flammability, all the things inside that could
be flammable. That’s when we switched to covering everything
with beta cloth. We had to look at all that. We had to look at all
the wiring. We had to look at all the malfunction procedures. I mean,
it was a complete sweep of the whole thing. It was a monumental task,
and Jack Swigert and I were out there every week for over a year,
five days a week, working that problem. It took that much.
At the same time, Jim Irwin and Ed Mitchell and some other guys were
going to Bethpage and doing the same thing with the lunar module,
because we figured [it had] the same kind of problems. Maybe [what]
we…[found] out from one [could] translate…to the other.
That was a very significant program…long term, but I think with
all that hard work—I was really surprised that we got flying
as quickly as we did, with all that had to be done from that, but
North American really answered the challenge and did it very quickly.
They were very good.
Are there other assignments that you recall that you’d like
to share with us that weren’t associated with flights?
Well, that’s the most significant one that comes to mind. There’re
lots of other things that we all did then. I guess looking after my
own experiments before flight was what took most of the time once
I got assigned to the flight. Making funny little cards for Pete Conrad
to read when he’s on the lunar surface was another one. [Laughter]
Any cartoons that you did as well?
We did a few cartoons for Pete. One of them we gave Pete was, “It
may not have been a big step for Neil, but it was a giant leap for
me,” because he was a little, bitty guy. [Laughter] So we did
those kinds of things, but all in fun. As far as other projects that
I did, no, I didn’t really [have] any that weren’t directly
associated with getting ready for the flight.
You said you were from Michigan and grew up on a farm, but yet many
of your years you spent here in Houston. What was your thoughts of
getting to move to the Gulf Coast?
When I moved here in ’66, I liked it. I loved the fact that
I could build a house in Nassau Bay that was completely covered with
trees. I drive by it now and the one big tree that was there is gone,
so it probably got too big. This is a beautiful area. I love Clear
Lake. Every Saturday you’d find me in Clear Lake doing something,
mostly water skiing with [R. Walter] Walt Cunningham. When we weren’t
doing that, we were over down in Galveston or some other place. I
loved it here.
As I lived here, as the years went by, I got to like the heat less
and less, and the humidity. I now live in Florida where we’ve
got the same heat but we don’t have the humidity, but even that
I’m getting very tired of in the summertime. So we’re
looking at doing something back up north for this summer if we can.
It’s funny, the heat and humidity has an accumulative effect,
I think, on you, and every year it gets a little worse. I can remember
having some bitterly cold days here. I can remember cars getting stalled
under overpasses because of the rising water, just all the fun things
that happened back in those days, but back then I thought this was
a wonderful place to live. Charming. Nice people, and smart. I’m
very glad that my two daughters went to school here. I think they
got an excellent education over here at the high school. They both
went on to college. It was a good school.
And you have ventured off into business ventures, and is there anything
you would like to share with us about your after-NASA career?
Whatever you’d like. I’ve managed to retire several times
from different things. Mostly I’ve tried to do my own companies.
One of the reasons I retired in ’75 when I did is because I
just sort of got fed up with bureaucracy. So I decided that if I went
to a big company, it’d be the same thing. So I said, “I’m
going to do my own thing.” So I’ve had several companies
and built them up and sold them. Not a lot of money, but a lot of
fun. I have some inventions out there now that I’ve licensed
to various companies and we’re hoping that they will become
successful. Just lots of things. There are lots of interests out there.
I think the worse thing of all is to retire and say, “Well,
that’s it. I’m done,” and sit in a chair. Can’t
do that. My wife tells me I can’t sit more than a day. I’ve
got to be doing something. Fortunately she’s the same way, so
we [unclear]. [Laughter]
Well, we certainly thank you for sitting with us today and sharing
with us many of your experiences. We wish you well in whatever you
choose to do in the future.
Thank you. Thank you very much. A pleasure to be here.