While most of the world huddled around televisions during the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, astronaut Al Worden sat in a cockpit on a California tarmac on NASA business, listening to a live audio feed between mission control and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
“I was getting my flight plan squared away when ground control called and said, ‘Hey, Apollo 11’s on its way down to the moon. We’ve got the ground-to-air audio.’ So I sat there for about an hour while they made their descent down to the lunar surface,” he says.
“In my mind, I’m in the cockpit with them watching the lunar scenery go by and helping them set down on the lunar surface,” he adds. “I trained in the command module, but I knew enough about the lunar module to know what they were doing and how they were doing it, so I could visualize what was going on.”
Worden would go on to pilot the Apollo 15 command module in 1971, orbiting the moon 75 times, performing the first deep-space spacewalk, and setting a Guinness record for being the “most isolated human being” ever, at 2,235 miles away from his colleagues on the lunar surface. At a vibrant and engaged 86, he still travels the world as an airshow VIP, talking to young students about STEM education, and fundraising for the Astronauts Scholarship Fund, which he formerly chaired. So he seemed a natural fit for technical adviser on Universal’s First Man, profiling Armstrong during NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon.
The film reunites La La Land director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling, and is based on the 2005 best seller of the same name. It was the book’s author, James Hansen, who brought Worden on board. “This was my first movie as technical adviser,” says Worden, who joined a crew of consultants that included NASA, Armstrong’s family, and Apollo 11’s Aldrin and Michael Collins. “Jim and I would sit there hour after hour until they got to a point where they weren’t sure what they were doing. Then they’d call me over to straighten it out. It was fun.”
Less fun was the partisan controversy that’s emerged in recent weeks over the film’s omission of the moment when Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon.
Worden adamantly waves off the flag flap. “It’s a lot of hot air about nothing,” he says. “There are lots of American flags in the movie, although the movie is specifically about Neil Armstrong and his life. I find it a little over the top to focus on the flag planting since it was not critical to the story. And then you realize that those who objected never saw the movie. Sad comment on today’s politics.”
Worden consulted on scenes involving the Apollo spacecraft and lunar landing. Crucial to the film’s tension is just how primitive and precarious the hardware comes across, from the strains and groans of the metal, to its analog switches and levers.
“It’s a big leap from a book to a movie,” says Worden, who has authored three books, including his best-selling memoir Falling to Earth. “When you write a book, you write about what people do, not the details of the mechanical things around them. In a movie, somebody has to have all the hardware in the right place at the right time. They had a lot of it really down pretty well”—including a spectacular depiction of a close-up lunar landscape, says Worden, who flew within 10,000 feet of the moon’s surface on his mission. “But there were some things I helped with.”
One of them was authentically tweaking the onscreen lunar module to assist the story. “In real life, there’s no electronic indication in the LM when it’s ready to depart the lunar surface. They get that from mission control. On a flight like that, you don’t put in a lot of stuff you don’t need. But in the movie, you wanted to make sure people understood what was going on. So I said, ‘Why don’t you put a light in the cockpit? When a green light comes on, that means it’s ready to go.’ That isn’t real life, but it lets the audience relate to what’s going on there.”
The man behind the myth
Such detail frames the film’s exploration of Armstrong’s famous reserve. “The movie is not specifically about spaceflight. It’s about Neil Armstrong—the problems he had, the difficulties attempting the things that he did, the accidents,” says Worden, a longtime friend of Armstrong, who passed away in 2012 at age 82.
“Ryan Gosling played him pretty aloof and goal-oriented, to the point where he would ignore things around him like his family. Neil was a very controlled and contained kind of guy, and cool under pressure. But he wasn’t quite as severe as they showed in the movie.
“When Neil got back from the flight, he became an international celebrity and had people on him all the time to do things,” he says. “In reaction, he just shut down with people he didn’t really know. He was a jolly good fellow when he was with friends, but I could see where that wall would come up with someone who meant nothing or wanted something from him.”
“You never saw Neil marketing himself very much. He was very quiet. Afterward, he spent years teaching aeronautics at the University of Cincinnati. He was really a professor, an educator.”
Armstrong’s emotional awe during his time in space is a cinematic conceit as well.
“Once you’re in flight, you do things mechanically, because that’s the way you’ve done it a thousand times during training,” says Worden. “There’s not a lot of wonder about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. We were busy following the flight plan, which was laid out minute-by-minute. We didn’t really have the opportunity to just look around. I didn’t think about that until I got back.
“I kind of compare it to . . . I was going to be a musician till I went to West Point,” he adds. “I took piano lessons for years. I would practice, practice, practice, then perform it without thinking, because I had done it so many times. Spaceflight’s a little like that, too.”
Mr. Rogers, holograms, and why we hurtle ourselves into space
By the time Worden joined NASA in 1966, he’d served as an Air Force pilot and military flight instructor, armed with University of Michigan masters degrees in aeronautics, astronautics, and instrumentation. He worked as Apollo 9 support crew and Apollo 12 back-up command module pilot before joining the crew of Apollo 15.
The experiments that Worden, Commander David Scott, and Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin conducted during their three days on and around the moon made it the most scientifically rigorous of the Apollo missions. The trip was a success, but Worden encountered re-entry turbulence when political pressure forced NASA to discipline the crew for carrying unauthorized payloads of stamp covers to eventually sell, despite similar precedents in previous missions—an incident he addressed during a Good Morning Britain appearance last year.
Post Apollo, Worden served in senior science positions at NASA Ames Research Center through 1975, making seven appearances on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood during that time. He then worked in private aerospace industry, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Florida in 1982, and even published poetry about space. He’s now collaborating with a Los Angeles intellectual property firm, 1on1 Talks, to create an AI-infused hologram of himself for educational posterity.
Worden also keeps abreast of space-themed sci-fi films, even if the science sometimes rankles. “I’ve seen Interstellar probably five times and I’ve never figured it out. How do you get a wormhole next to Saturn?” he laughs. “And I loved The Martian, except he used the potatoes the wrong way. He should have made vodka out of them. He might have died, but he would have died happy!”
The current debate over where we go next—a moon base or Mars—doesn’t hold much sway over Worden.
“The general population thinks more about the thrill of going into space and the excitement of seeing something new, and going to the moon or Mars,” he says. “The most important part of the space program was not going to moon, but developing the technology to do that. Technology developed in the ’50s and ’60s space program led to solid-state devices, titanium processing, high-energy rocket engines and put this country ahead in the world. I think people miss the point on that.
“Learning how to live in harsh conditions on the moon, or going to Mars and keeping people alive for 18 months in space—radiation being one of the biggest challenges—will take a whole new paradigm of technology,” he adds. “That’s what I see is the value.”
“Ultimately, the whole basis for the space program, even though we don’t recognize it as such, is to give us capability to go somewhere else when we can’t live here anymore. The moon and Mars are steps along the way.”