"The best we ever did"

Boundless possibilities

When the unmanned rover Curiosity landed on Mars in August 2012, space enthusiasts around the world celebrated boundless new possibilities in interplanetary exploration and space entrepreneurship. The mission was the most complex entry, descent, and landing NASA had ever attempted.

The key word, it should be noted, is “unmanned.” More than four decades after the last lunar landing and with the space shuttle program mothballed, the U.S. is fast becoming a secondary player in manned space flight, needing to hitch a ride on Russian rockets to reach the International Space Station.

Any talk of people returning to the moon, landing on an asteroid, or visiting Mars is just that—talk. But it’s talk that continues to captivate former Apollo astronauts Al Worden, MSE Aero ’63, and Jim McDivitt, BSE Aero ’59, who, though forever bound by their places in history, disagree markedly on the future aims of the U.S. manned space program.

To Worden, visiting a far-off planet would be “a wonderful thing.” McDivitt, however, considers sending humans to Mars “a stupid idea.”

While McDivitt wonders about the risk of exposing humans to prolonged space flight, Worden talks about the need to develop technology that will “turn a spacecraft into a starship.”

Space (comm)oddity

Worden, 81, was the command module pilot on Apollo 15; he orbited the moon in the summer of 1971 as fellow Michigan graduate Jim Irwin (who passed away in 1991) and David Scott became the first astronauts to traverse the lunar surface in a rover. Worden called the science done during that Apollo 15 mission “the best we ever did.” That science included his own spacewalk, the first ever to be performed in deep space.


When Worden returned to Earth he believed the U.S. ultimately was headed to Mars. But then-President Richard Nixon thought the U.S. public would no longer support such expensive, albeit grand, missions and cut them out of NASA’s budget. So the last three Apollo missions (18-20) were canceled and the nation committed its energies instead to the space shuttle.

McDivitt then served as program manager for Apollo missions 12-16, work he called more interesting than actually flying in space. But despite his exemplary space pedigree McDivitt doesn’t share Worden’s enthusiasm for extended manned missions.

“Nothing on the moon is worth anything,” McDivitt says. “It’s utterly ridiculous to talk about building a base on the moon. It’s like going to Antarctica. There isn’t anything there. It’s astronomically expensive to have people living permanently on the moon.”

McDivitt is equally dismissive of people journeying to Mars.

“Sending men to Mars is a stupid idea,” he says. “We can send unmanned rovers [to explore], and that’s a great idea. Unmanned rovers are safer and lighter; they can travel farther from the landing site. A guy standing on Mars isn’t going to be able to do a darn thing once he’s there.

“During the Apollo program [astronauts] were getting light flashes in their eyes because particles were coming right through the spacecraft,” he continues. “If you go a couple of years out [in space], what’s that going to do to someone’s brain?”

“A hand in the game”

McDivitt, 84, who grew up in Kalamazoo and graduated at the top of his class at Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering, would like the U.S. to maintain a presence in space, through four or five manned missions per year “to keep our hand in the game.”

Once dismissive of space entrepreneurship, McDivitt believes the superior technology of the 21st century makes such efforts by private industry and benefactors more feasible. The key question is, “Can it be done safely?”

Worden sees no future for space entrepreneurship beyond Earth’s orbit, adding, “I don’t see any of them going to Mars. It’s the government’s job to do the long-range stuff.”

A different time

Both men served in the military before entering Michigan, making them much older than most of their classmates.

“It was work, work, work, work,” recalls Worden, a native of Jackson, Mich., who had graduated from West Point in 1955. “I had been out of college for six years and, boy, did I have a lot of catching up to do. I studied night and day. But we had wonderful people in the aeronautical engineering group. The Air Force contracted Michigan to teach people about guided missiles.”

McDivitt wasn’t the typical college student either. He spent more than seven years in the Air Force and had flown combat missions during the Korean War. He arrived in Ann Arbor a married man with a newborn child, and was in the classroom when the space age dawned on Oct. 4, 1957, the date the Soviet Union launched the first satellite to orbit the Earth — Sputnik.

“I was taking a course in dynamics when Sputnik was launched,” McDivitt says. “Our professor proceeded to explain how you could put something in orbit. I got my introduction to space aeronautics that day.”

McDivitt left NASA in 1972 and worked in executive capacities for Pullman and Rockwell International (government operations) before retiring in 1995. He divides his time between Elk Lake, Mich., and Tucson.

He remembers fondly when landing on the moon united a nation:

“Neil Armstrong [who died in 2012] left the Earth a lot better place than when he got here. That, I think, is what the space program was all about.”

Worden departed NASA in 1975, and became president of Maris Worden Aerospace and later a vice president of BG Goodrich Aerospace in Ohio. He also served as chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Program, which awards scholarships to outstanding science and engineering students. His book, Falling to Earth, was published in 2011.

He has homes in Florida and Michigan and continues to see potential in U.S. space flight.

“Developing the technology to turn a spacecraft into a starship, that’s going to take a long time,” Worden says. “It’s one step at a time: First Earth orbit, then the moon, then Mars, and then the nearest star system. I am a firm believer that there’s life out there — but it’s a long way away.”

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