Falling to Earth – Book Review

Title: Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to Earth
Publisher: Smithsonian Books
Author: Al Worden & Francis French
ISBN: 13: 978-1588343093 & ISBN 10: 158834309X
Price: $29.95 [304 pages hardcover]

Back in 1966 there used to be an American western TV series called “Branded”. The central character, a West Point graduate and US army captain Jason McCord, is thrown out of the army falsely accused of cowardice. Each episode opens with a humiliating public scene. As his fellow soldiers watch, the captain’s hat is tossed aside, epaulets and buttons ripped off and his sword is ceremonially broken in two before he is cast out of the fort and the doors slammed behind him.

Following the successful return of Apollo 15, Al Worden was accused of unfairly profiting from illicit postal covers (envelopes carried aboard Apollo 15, stamped on day of launch and again on splashdown), in a deal prearranged with a German businessman. Virtually all astronauts had taken personal items on their flights and subsequently sold them for cash later. This was a tradition that NASA had sanctioned since the days of Mercury. But Worden became the fall guy. Abandoned by Deke Slayton (NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations), humiliated by Chris Craft (NASA flight director) and dumped by Dave Scott (his Apollo 15 commander), Worden was the only astronaut to be sacked by NASA for this infringement. He was “branded”.

Falling to Earth“‘ is Al Worden’s autobiography, written with the British but USA based space historian Francis French.   To mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 15, Worden has published the story of his mission as Apollo 15’s command module pilot  (CMP) and its immediate aftermath of what came to be known as the “covers incident”,  as the centre piece. With a foreword by Dick Gordon, an epilogue by Tom Stafford and further praise on the cover from Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn, Worden has finally received the personal redemption from those that he considers matter most – fellow astronauts.

In this three hundred page book Worden describes how Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott arranged a deal with a German businessman for the whole crew. They would fly 100 postal covers to the Moon and back for him to sell privately and discreetly after the space program was over or they left NASA. In return he would set up a trust account of 7000USD in a German Bank for each astronaut to be used for their children’s education.  Within months after the flight it all went wrong. The covers were on the open market with Deke Slayton receiving queries about their authenticity from potential buyers.

Relegated to a desk job following this revelation, Worden describes the humiliating and painful events that followed. He felt ostracised from NASA and in his darker moments was left wondering if life was “still worth living” (p258). He reassesses the idea of honour and discipline he learnt at West Point and the tradition of loyalty within NASA as “bullshit” (p262).   His crewmate Jim Irvin retired and stepped out of the picture, his commander Dave Scott, despite having initiated the business deal, avoided any public castigation. Throughout the book, Worden charts Scott’s culpability in the incident whilst repeatedly emphasising his exemplary command integral to the outstanding success of their challenging mission. Tom Stafford indicates in his book (‘We Have Capture ‘, published in 2004) that this incident cost Scott the command of the USA/USSR joint flight (Apollo Soyuz Test Project) that Stafford went on to command. None of the Apollo 15 crew flew again.

Whilst this is the first detailed account of NASA’s infamous covers incident, there is much more. Worden describes his childhood on a farm in Michigan, homesteaded by his illegal immigrant grandfather Fred from Canada. He describes candidly the harsh reality of his early days at West Point military academy, and throughout the book uses terse and colourful language that he probably picked up there.  He describes with remarkable detail his time with the air force as a test pilot, including an exchange period to Britain, his selection and training as a NASA astronaut and his flight to the Moon. Like all the Apollo missions, Apollo 15’s was a mission impossible. With the heaviest payload and longest duration on the surface of the Moon, it was arguably the most scientifically ambitious lunar mission. It had its share of drama but ended with outstanding success.

This book offers the reader a clearer understanding of the role of the CMP.  As the Apollo 15 CMP, Worden was responsible for the science experiments installed in the specially developed Science Instrument Module (SIM) within the service module. He operated the cameras and instruments during his six days in lunar orbit, for three of which he was alone. During the return journey, whilst still 200,000 miles from Earth, Worden made the deepest of deep space walks to manually recover the film from the cameras in the SIM bay.

Worden insists it was never his intention to become an astronaut until the mid sixties. This ambivalence seems hard to accept from a 21st century perspective. Things were so different then. He describes his genuine fear that his impending divorce might cause him to lose his place on Apollo 15. He smoked then and continues to smoke today saying “if I could have found a safe way to do it, I would have smoked all the way to the Moon and back” (p75).  He too briefly deals with one of the mission’s many unique objectives, the launch from the SIM bay of a sub satellite prior to leaving lunar orbit.

Like any good wine, Worden’s story benefits from the long interval offering a deeper insight into the human element of human spaceflight. Written in a slick punchy style it is entertaining and remarkably informative equally for those who remember the Apollo era and those unfortunate to have been born after it was over.

Two dozen Americans visited the Moon between 1968 and 1972.  As their numbers dwindle and they age the astonishing achievements and sheer magic of that adventure is fading from living memory. Books like this not only introduce a new generation to one of humanity’s greatest adventures, but make a critical contribution to the collective record of that exceptional era by those who made it happen.


  1. Kerrie Dougherty says:

    Nice review, Gurbir. Falling to Earth is a really good read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Al Worden’s candour and willingness to acknowledge his own faults and shortcomings were quite refreshing. His role as CMP rather than Moonwalker provides an insight into the Apollo missions not usually found in books by the other Apollo astronauts.

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