Our Friend Al Who Went to the Moon: Remembering Al Worden
Al Worden, 1932-2020
Alfred “Al” Worden, command module pilot on Apollo 15, passed away on March 18, 2020. We mourn the loss and celebrate the life of Al, an aviator, engineer, and storyteller. From the halls of West Point to the far side of the Moon, the legacy of history’s first deep-space walker continues to inspire.
Below, space history curator Jennifer Levasseur reflects on what Al’s friendship meant to her and our museum.
When my children ask me about my work, it’s usually to ask about people or things connected to the spaceflight books we read before bedtime. I get similar questions from friends, family, and my hair stylist. Did I ever meet Neil Armstrong? What does the space shuttle smell like? How do you go to the bathroom in space? I can answer those, but where I steer the conversation most times is to my friend Al. That’s where I get to feel connected to the Apollo Program and the race to the Moon, even though it was all won and finished before I was born. That’s what makes my job feel like a fantasy.
Alfred M. Worden grew up not that far from where I grew up in Michigan, just two counties northwest. I learned about him as an elementary school kid when I traveled to a small space museum in his hometown of Jackson. Our part of Michigan took pride in its connections with space heroes like him, whether they were born in the area or spent time at the very nearby University of Michigan, including Ed White, Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott, Jim Irwin, and Jack Lousma. I took special pride in having been born in Toledo and getting to watch Senator John Glenn appear on the TV news from time to time. Never did I think back then that some of these people wouldn’t just be names on a museum exhibit panel, but people I would meet, and who would play a role in my life.
When Al published his autobiography, Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon, in 2012, I had a chance to connect with him. He came to give a book talk, hosted by my colleague Allan Needell, but I was stuck at home that day with a sick child. Through one of our Communications staff, Isabel Lara, I sent Al my best wishes and a very big “GO BLUE” (as a fellow Michigan University Wolverine, I knew he’d understand my meaning). We later corresponded via email, and then met finally when he visited the Museum.
What I quickly came to appreciate about Al was his warmth, his generosity, and his keen interest in preserving the stories of Apollo and human spaceflight through words, images, museum collections, and exhibits. I spent two days with Al, touring our facilities and talking about how we at the Smithsonian set standards for ourselves, work to convey stories through artifacts, and look at people as a way to connect visitors of today with the stories of yesterday. Al was passionate about this kind of educational work. He became an Executive Board member of the Space Station Museum in northern California and donated some of his personal memorabilia and artifacts to them. He also supported our work at the National Air and Space Museum. He filmed videos for us, provided guidance to me personally on his Apollo 15 photography for my book and articles, and honored us in November 2019 with an amazing lecture for the National Air and Space Society’s annual Donald D. Engen Flight Jacket Night event.
Al Worden was a friend to many, always ready with a hearty midwestern handshake or warm hug. When I last greeted him at the Museum in November, I did not know it would be my last opportunity to celebrate his enthusiasm for aviation and spaceflight in person. Many wonderful tributes from NASA and Al’s friends and family are being shared, but for me and many of my colleagues, Al will always be a cherished member of our effort to tell the stories of Apollo. To my kids, he’ll always be known as my friend Al who went to the Moon and back.