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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Apollo 15 astronaut on space, the UAE and the Mars mission

Al Worden was command module pilot for Apollo 15 and is one of only 24 people who have flown to the Moon

Alfred Worden, an American astronaut and engineer who was the command module pilot for the Apollo 15 Moon mission in 1971, was in the UAE to attend the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference and the Dubai Airshow. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
Alfred Worden, an American astronaut and engineer who was the command module pilot for the Apollo 15 Moon mission in 1971, was in the UAE to attend the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference and the Dubai Airshow. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

July 26, 1971. Apollo 15 blasts off on a mighty Saturn rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre to the Moon. A few months later, on December 2, a new country in the Middle East sets off on its own independent path.

More than four decades on and one of the astronauts from that mission was in town as the UAE embarks on another journey to put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars in 2021.

Al Worden was the command module pilot for Apollo 15 and one of only 24 people who have flown to the Moon. During the mission, he orbited alone for three days, while the other two astronauts walked on the Moon’s surface.

Now in his 80s, Worden’s enthusiasm for space travel remains undimmed and he is full of praise for a space programme the UAE only launched in 2014. Worden said the plan to send a probe to Mars is ambitious and doable.

“Anything in the future needs to be cooperative, and I see the seeds of that here. It’s a great place.”

The crew of the Apollo 15 lunar mission at the Manned Spacecraft Centre, Houston, Texas, 1971. From left to right: David R. Scott (mission commander), Alfred M. Worden (Command Module pilot) and James B. Irwin (Lunar Module pilot). Courtesy The Print Collector / Getty Images
The crew of the Apollo 15 lunar mission at the Manned Spacecraft Centre, Houston, Texas, 1971. From left to right: David R. Scott (mission commander), Alfred M. Worden (Command Module pilot) and James B. Irwin (Lunar Module pilot). Courtesy The Print Collector / Getty Images

But a project of much more difficulty is the UAE’s proposal to build a city on Mars by 2117. Today, there is more computer memory in our smartphones than the entire guidance system on Apollo 15. Worden used a sextant to find his way back to Earth from the Moon in 1975, so navigation is not an issue. But countering radiation and keeping humans alive to survive a year and a half in space are the keys to a successful mission.

"It’s doable. The question is why: we have to learn how to live somewhere else. Mars is another step up. The day will come when we can’t live here anymore – a proper space programme can pay for itself.

“But this is the programme I like to see as too often we are short range people. It’s wonderful.”

Worden was born on a small farm in Jackson, Michigan, and could not afford to go to college, so the military provided these opportunities. He forged his path as a fighter and test pilot before joining Nasa in 1966. But it’s the Apollo 15 flight with which he will be forever associated.

His entered the Guinness World Record books for performing the world’s first space walk in deep space. And for being "the most isolated human", being the farthest any human has been from his nearest living human – 3,596 kilometres from the other two on the Moon.

Apollo 15 was also the first the use the Lunar Roving Vehicle. The days spent cut off from Houston ground control and his colleagues are memorable – especially his views of the universe from the far side of the Moon.

“There was part of the flight where I had no light on me from the Earth or Sun. Complete darkness except for starlight. The stars were a wash of light - no one individual star as you couldn’t see one. Just a wash of light because there were so many. It makes you think about the universe we live in.

“You begin to realise we are not alone in the universe. There are going to be all kinds of people out there. There are going to be a finite number of planets that have intelligent life.”

It’s Worden’s first time in the UAE and he has gone to the Dubai Airshow, the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference and also spent the past few days touring schools, talking to pupils, and emphasising the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths.

Apollo 15 Saturn V takes off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, with the astronauts David Scott, Alfred Worden and James Irwin aboard July 26, 1971. Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Apollo 15 Saturn V takes off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, with the astronauts David Scott, Alfred Worden and James Irwin aboard July 26, 1971. Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Worden has also met Alia Al Mansoori, winner of the UAE's Genes in Space programme. It was revealed on Wednesday that her experiment that was run on the International Space Station about how genes could change in space was a success.

“I’m going to put her in touch with a microbiologist in the States so she can have a mentor to talk to. We are going to need these kinds of people in the future for long space flights and I think Alia is going to be one of these people.”

His advice to young Emiratis interested in getting involved is to study what you love.

“The kids are great here. I think they are wonderful – very bright and smart," he said.

"But don’t worry if it’s astronaut related because in the future we will needs lots and lots of different talent. It doesn’t have to be an aerospace engineer. What is important is to study something they love and do well at it.”

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Read more:

The results are in - and Alia's Genes in Space experiment is a winner

UAE ready to train its first astronauts as early as next year

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