Apollo astronaut Al Worden is one of only 24 people to have been to the Moon. He has been visiting Limerick for three years now, and we have Limerick native Paul Ryan to thank for it.
Paul, a graduate of computer systems in UL, works for AXA Insurance, Shannon and volunteers at Lough Gur Heritage Centre. A self-confessed ‘boring IT guy doing this crazy space stuff,’ he has always had a passion for space but as the priorities of life got in the way it became more of a hobby. Then in 2010 Paul suffered two heart attacks, which made him revaluate his life. He realised that he wanted his children to be able to fulfil their life goals and joked about them going to Mars. But he asked himself, how would they ever become engaged in that and learn about space, when astronauts who come to Ireland mostly speak up in Dublin?
That thought triggered the whole process and when Paul and Al met at a convention in the UK, they exchanged details. Al has been coming to Limerick ever since. One of the things bringing him back year after year is his fascination with Lough Gur. Lough Gur, is trying to find the right blend of being an education centre and a tourist attraction. As well as the regular talks, it’s a very scenic place with walks and trails and of course the draw of the stone circle.
We sat down with Al Worden ahead of his lecture in the Strand Hotel on 16th July to raise funds for Lough Gur, to speak to him about his career and his visits to Limerick.
You were Command Module Pilot for the Apollo 15 lunar mission in 1971. When did you know you wanted to be an astronaut and why?
That was never an issue with me. I had decided fairly well along in my career that being an astronaut was not something I was going to get to do. You see, back in those days they had an application cycle every year or so and I missed one in 1963 because I was assigned to come over to the English test pilot school. I was getting close to the age limit; back in those days you had to be under 35 so I thought ‘okay, well that opportunity is gone’.
Then I came back over and taught at the test pilot school at Edwards, and low and behold while I was there they had another selection and they realised that they needed more guys to do the Apollo programme. That turned out to be about a year before I turned 35 so I just threw my name in. I had never really thought about it very much. My attitude has always been it doesn’t matter what you do so long as you’re developing your career and you’re doing what you need to do, like going to college and getting flight training etc. When you do all of that and you do it well then you never know what other doors are going to open.
You received a Guinness World Record for being the most isolated human being?
Yes I have a Guinness World Record for that; it’s something that somebody thought of. When they go to Mars, they’re going to be really isolated, so somebody else will get that record then! I do have a second Guinness record for the first deep space EVA and that is a record that will never go away because nobody can beat that. When I received the first certificate I said ‘it’s a Guinness record right? The certificate is really nice but where’s the beer?’ And he said ‘we no longer belong to the brewery anymore, we’re an independent operation so we don’t do that’. On Thursday night when he came back to give me the second one he had a big brown bag full of beer for me, which I couldn’t do anything about cause I was going home the next day! I gave it to my friend who was also my host over there and said here take them away, and I think she drank the last one a couple of weeks ago. They stacked that sack pretty full.
Were you ever scared?
I’m more scared of mundane things. Space flight isn’t scary if you train for what you do. Do you remember the first time you rode a bicycle? Were you scared? Okay, when you drive a bike today are you scared? No. You get used to it. Space flights are the same; you learn all that you need to know about it and you get to a point where you’re not worried or scared anymore. There’s no reason to be afraid. You’re very comfortable with the equipment and you’re extremely comfortable with mission control so you just don’t think about that.
How do people react when they find out you’re an astronaut?
It’s hard to say. You know there are still people who doubt we ever went to the Moon. But I would say people are very solicitous of me when they realise that I’ve been to the Moon. If I wear my NASA jacket I get recognised on the street, if I’m announced as a speaker at an event people would come looking for me, they want to meet someone who’s been to the Moon. But I can walk down any street in the world without a jacket and nobody knows who I am. It’s kind of a nice way to be.
How does it feel to be one of the only 24 people in the world to have been to the Moon?
Well I feel very good about it. That was probably the greatest decade in the history of the United States in terms of what we could do and what we wanted to do.
I feel fortunate to have been in such a fabulous programme. It’s something that nobody else in the world could do, something we could do, you couldn’t do it today. I feel very honoured to have been a part of a slice of our history.
What have you done since you retired?
I don’t believe in retirement. I think the only way to stay young and productive is to be active and so I’ve done a lot of things.
When I retired from the air force I taught in a college for a couple of years. In that time I put together my own little research company with a British partner and we developed a product for airplanes and sold it to a company called BF Goodridge and I ran their Michigan company for seven years.
I joined the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation about the time I retired and became the chairman in 2002 for about seven years. Charity work is what it’s all about. I make a lot of appearances for companies and I do consultancy work for a museum in Germany. I’ve also written three books. I wrote one straight after my flight in the 70s, a children’s book, and then I wrote an autobiography with a co-author three years ago. We’ve sold 50 thousand copies so it’s doing okay. And we’ve been asked to do three more books so I’ve always got something to work on.
What did you miss most when you were in space?
I didn’t miss anything because we were so busy and so excited about what we were doing and looking forward to the next bit we had to do that we never really thought about it. I wrote a book of poetry and that was the first book I did. People say ‘did you write that on the flight?’ and I say no I didn’t write it on the flight, I wrote that when I got back, I mean I didn’t have time!
What was your first impression of Limerick and the Irish people?
Paul Ryan, my friend, organised for me to come and give a talk to a bunch of schools around here, and we did a side trip out to Lough Gur: that grabbed me. If you haven’t been out there you should go, it is unbelievable. I have a very strong feeling that we need to know what happened in the past to know where we’re going.
Lough Gur is a perfect example of that. You have people who lived here seven, eight, nine thousand years ago, very smart people, and they built great things, great pottery stuff, great bronze stuff. If you go to Lough Gur you’ll see a whole display of artefacts that age to 8,000 BC – that’s 4,000 years before the pyramids! How can that happen?
I love to help Lough Gur in any way I can so now I’ve made it kind of a habit that when in Europe I’ll stop on my way back for a couple of days. Last year they made me a patron of Lough Gur and that kind of cemented me in a little bit more. I love Limerick, it’s a great little city. I love the Irish people. I’ve got to say Paul Ryan is one of the nicest people, he is so helpful and so willing to do whatever needs to be done and I find that that’s generally the attitude here. People are very friendly.
Places don’t mean anything. People mean everything. So that’s why I like it here.
Article by: Sarah Talty
Photography by: Eoghan Lyons
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