11
$\begingroup$

The X article NASA shock: Apollo 15 astronaut's Moon landing confession - 'Can't do anything to me now' says "NASA astronaut Alfred "Al" Worden dropped an astonishing Apollo 15 confession, claiming NASA "can't do anything" to him after 45 years":

The astronaut told MIT he has kept the incredible story a secret for 45 years.

Mr Worden said: “When I fired the engine to circularise, and I forget how many feet per second I had to add, instead of looking at the instrument panel I was suddenly looking out the left window.

“Because when I ignited the engine, that couch because of Newton went like this and now I’m looking out the side window.

“You talk about freaked out. I was really freaked because I could not reach a single control.

“So thank God the computer worked and it stopped at the right time and I was ok.

“I never told anyone that, only 45 years later I dare and even try mention that. They can’t do anything to me now.”

According to Mr Worden, the three seats in the Apollo Command Module were mounted on swivelled shock absorbers.

When the astronaut fired the spacecraft’s engines to hit a stable orbit around the Moon, he was turned away from the Command Module’s console.

“And so you adjust all that string of material all the way across there and you can kind of get the couches from bouncing back and forth because you put a little pressure on the pressure pads.

“Well, the centre couch was out. The shock absorber is on a swivel.”

Question(s):

  1. What happened here? I can't understand the explanation. Starting the engine and adding some amount of acceleration caused the seat to rotate, and somehow it was impossible for Worden to see some display or some instruction, as well as impossible rotate the seat back?
  2. Is this a design error? Across all Apollo lunar missions? Was it ever corrected? Or was it something akin to "pilot error"?
  3. Has something similar happened on other Apollo missions?
$\endgroup$
8
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ IIRC the center couch can be moved out of the way - not sure if it’s folded backwards or dropped downwards or what. During the single-crewman period the extra space was more valuable than the third seat. If you were between the remaining couches when the SPS lit, it would literally be an uphill battle to reach the controls. All SPS burns were computer-timed though, so as long as nothing went wrong in the AGC it would be no big deal. Leaving a comment instead of answer until I can confirm the couch arrangement. $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2019 at 11:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ IIRC Michael Collins mentioned the seat setup in Carrying the fire. $\endgroup$
    – DarkDust
    Oct 29, 2019 at 14:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove From a history page: " The couches can be folded or adjusted into a number of seat positions. The one used most is the 85-degree position assumed for launch, orbit entry, and landing. The 170-degree (flat-out) position is used primarily for the center couch, so that crewmen can move into the lower equipment bay. The armrests on either side of the center couch can be folded footward so the astronauts from the two outside couches can readilyt slide over them ." $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Oct 29, 2019 at 15:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ See Figure 13. - Foldable-couch flight positions on page 11 or 17 of this PDF for a diagram of couch positions. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Oct 29, 2019 at 16:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It should be noted that Al Worden passed away after you posted this question. It's not documented in any official NASA sources, only as an account by Worden in popular media. We may therefore never get a proper answer to this question, although @RussellBorogove's comment above is the most likely answer. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Apr 3, 2020 at 22:45

1 Answer 1

7
$\begingroup$

After having gone through the Apollo Operations Handbook a gazillion times, I think I know what may have happened.

First, to establish the situation, refer to figures 1-12 and 1-13 of the Handbook for nomenclature and orientations.

Excerpt of Figure 1-12

Excerpt of Figure 1-12 from Apollo Operations Handbook

Figure 1-13

Figure 1-13 from Apollo Operations Handbook

  • In the article, Worden is explaining he's alone, Scott and Irwin being on their way to land. There's one circularisation burn after that, at T+101:39 that he will need to do by himself. The center couch is stowed by then (to facilitate LM ingress, per the Handbook p. 1-24).
  • With the center couch stowed, and since the flight controls, including the computer interface, are on the left-hand (CDR) side of the CM, Worden will be sitting in the left couch.
  • In video accompanying the article, Worden is illustrating the motion of the seat. It is clearly a rotation in the X-Z plane, but it is unclear if he's indicating a rotation around the hip, head or foot.

Figure 1-14 of the handbook shows the following overview of a single couch:

Excerpt of Figure 1-14

Excerpt of Figure 1-14 from Apollo Operations Handbook

The couch was connected to the CM structure by two YY struts connected to the outer wall of the of the module and large beams that connect the foot XX struts, head XX struts and ZZ struts. The couch was furthermore connected to the head beam with two pins. See also Figure 1-19 of the Handbook.

The item labeled "YY Strut Handle" is presumably the "swivelled shock absorber" that Worden refers to in the video. Figure 1-21 of the Handbook shows the YY strut in detail.

My theory of what happened

In order for Worden to "see out the left window", he would need to be sitting in the left seat and then rotate backwards around the Y-axis going through the YY-struts. This would normally not be possible, because the head bracket would collide with the head beam during this rotation. In any case, that bracket should be secured to the head beam with the two pins.

However, do note that there is a hinge at the shoulder. This hinge can be unlocked (see Figure 1-16), allowing the head bracket to be folded and allowing the whole seat to rotate freely around the hip.

I'm hypothesising that during LM preparations and undocking (recall that they had a problem separating the LM) the seat was disconnected to get better access to the hatch, and that they forgot to lock the shoulder hinge and head bracket back in place. When Worden fired the SPS, Newton did his thing and rotated him backwards about 90 degrees, and he looked out the window.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.