Tellus Science Museum’s leadership is affectionately remembering Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden, who died Wednesday at age 88. During his 1971 mission, the command module pilot circled the moon by himself as his fellow astronauts test-drove the first lunar rover.
“He was quite the storyteller,” said Tellus Astronomer David Dundee. “He was a breed of heroes who enjoyed the risk of new frontiers.
“My favorite tidbit from him was about the exploration of Mars. He said to send old folks, seniors, like him. It could be a one-way trip. A whole lot cheaper than a round trip. ‘They’re old, they don’t have to come back.’”
Worden visited Tellus Nov. 11, 2011, during his book tour for “Falling to Earth,” which was published by Smithsonian Books. With Tellus being a Smithsonian affiliate, his appearance was set up by the Smithsonian Institution.
“I picked Al up, and we had a great ride and had lunch before bringing him to the museum,” said Jose Santamaria, Tellus’ executive director. “Although we had not known each other, he talked freely about his experience during the space program and his opinion of the current state of the space program — his opinions were not flattering. When I brought up the private companies who were pursuing their own rocket programs, he said something to the effect that — ‘They’re all using 1950s and 1960s technology.’
“He had some interesting comments — that flying the spacecraft was easier than flying a jet, and that the hardest thing he ever did was not going to the moon, but running for Congress, an election he did not win.”
Along with promoting his book, Worden participated in a lecture-format program at Tellus in which he was interviewed by Dundee and then curator, Julian Gray.
“As I was trying to set up Al Worden’s book tour to Tellus, he made no secret of showing his disdain over having to come to some little town in north Georgia,” said Cantey Smith, director of education for Tellus. “Once he arrived, saw the museum and experienced our staff and the way we treated him, Al spent the whole time basically apologizing for his behavior as we showed our professionalism and Southern hospitality.”
Continuing to stay in touch with him through the years, Smith is saddened by the loss of this memorable guest.
“He gave one of my favorite lectures and shared a remarkable story of bravery and humanity with our guests through his inspiring and humorous storytelling,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him. As I drove him to the airport, we argued about politics and which fast food restaurant had the best hamburger.
“He freely shared his love and concern about Jill, his lovely wife, and her battle with ovarian cancer. I texted him three or four times each year following, whenever his name or photograph came up. He always texted me back and thanked me again for his experience at Tellus and for being remembered. I have cried several times today for him.”
An expansion of the former Weinman Mineral Museum, Tellus opened at 100 Tellus Drive in January 2009 and became a Smithsonian affiliate during its first year.
In addition to the Collins Family My Big Backyard, the 120,000-square-foot museum is comprised of three other main galleries — Millar Science in Motion, Weinman Mineral Gallery and the Fossil Gallery — a 120-seat digital planetarium, solar house and observatory.
“For Al’s lecture, we were able to borrow a lunar sample from NASA, and the rock was collected during his mission — Apollo 15,” Santamaria said. “A number of us got our picture taken with Al and the moon rock. A couple of years later, we applied to NASA for a permanent moon rock that we could place on exhibit.
“We reached out to Al, who wrote a strong letter of support on our behalf. Fittingly, the moon rock we got from NASA was from the Apollo 15 mission.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this article.