Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Falling to Earth

Finally, an evocative description of one of the space era's most intriguing domains; that of the command module pilot, who orbited the moon alone as his companions explored the surface. By Apollo 15, in 1971, NASA was confident enough to keep astronauts on the moon for several days, in contrast to Apollo 11's 'touch and go' in which the astronauts descended to the surface, popped out briefly and then got the Hell out of there and back to Earth in a hurry. No, by Apollo 15 the project was all about science and exploration, and command module pilot Al Worden's book "Falling to Earth" narrates his experience of flying the command module, alone, around the moon for three days. Other astronaut's memoirs have been evocative on occasion, but in the relevant chapters, Worden (and his coauthor, Francis French) draws me right into the cabin with him, for experiences we normally associate with science fiction. But, in my experience and as revealed in Worden's experiences, fiction is a hack-job compared to reality. In the photo (click for mind-expanding enlargement), crater Tsiolkovski from an altitude of just under 50,000 feet above the surface of the moon.

“And then I slipped around the back of the moon once again…I couldn’t talk to Jim, Dave or the Earth. I was the most isolated human in existence…I didn’t feel lonely or isolated…I had a meticulously choreographed three days ahead of me…I needed to use the sextant, the windows…

The moon looked enormous from such a low orbit. From Earth, I’d had no sense of its vertical features. Now…I saw the outer rings of molten waves formed by meteor impacts…As I constantly rounded a curve and angled surface, the tops of these hills would peek over the horizon before I reached them, and once I passed over them the landscape would plunge thousands of feet in steep, shadowed crater walls. With no atmosphere to soften the view, every crater and boulder was sharp and crisp.
I felt like a sailor crossing a dark ocean…Gliding over Picard crater, I could see delicate layers of lava…all the way down to the bottom. They alternated between thin light and dark bands…

I orbited alone in a detached, eerie silence, my spacecraft on a smooth trajectory. When I flew jets back on Earth, I was used to little bumps as I cruised through air and the roar of the engine. Here there was stillness and peace. It was more like riding in a hot-air balloon, drifting with no sense of motion…The only noise came from pumps and fans running in the background…Since my life depended on this machine, I was hyperaware of unusual sounds.

I curved around the moon to where no sunlight or Earthshine could reach me. In the dark and quiet, I felt like a bird of the night, silently gliding and falling around the moon, never touching. I turned the cabin lights off. There was no end to the stars. I could see tens, perhaps hundreds of times more stars than on the darkest night on Earth…There were so many, I could no longer find constellations. My vision was filled with a blaze of starlight…I sensed that there was so much more out there that our Earthly philosophies would lead us to believe.”

Excerpted from Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut's Journey to the Moon(c) 2011 by Alfred Worden and Francis French.

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