STUDENTS of a County Limerick primary school were left starstruck when a US astronaut who landed on the moon in 1971, touched down at their school this week to speak about his experience.
Al Worden who was one of 19 astronauts selected by NASA in 1966 and served as a command module pilot for the historic Apollo 15 (July 26 - August 7, 1971) visited Caherelly National School where he fielded questions from children, on the momentous mission.
In anticipation of the visit, students and staff had decorated the corridors and classrooms with pictures of space rockets and spaceships and had a number of songs penned especially for the icon of space travel.
“How do you lie down in space?”, “Can you cry in space?”, and “How do you eat in space?” were all questions put to Mr Worden by the enthusiastic pupils.
The 82-year-old, who was on his first visit to Limerick, said he hoped the event would encourage young people to think about science and technology. “The people who come after us and go to Mars will be like the students from this school here - they will go onto college and get their science and technology training,” he noted.
He recalled vividly returning to earth on August 7, 1971 “and opening the hatch and seeing all the Navy people waiting for us on the Pacific Ocean and getting my first good breath of earth air”.
In relation to space travel at the moment, Mr Worden said the next step is a mission to Mars “but an awful lot of things have to be resolved and studied and taken care of before then. “It will be a year and a half flight,” he pointed out. ”Can you imagine, a year and a half flight - all the things you have to do. For example, food - how do you even store enough on board to go a year and a half?
“Technically, going to Mars is not any more difficult than going to the moon - it’s just a longer flight.”
The mission to the moon in 1971 took 12 days, seven hours, 11 minutes, 53 seconds. “On our space craft, we didn’t have any beds, toilets, sinks or showers and all our food was freeze dried. Going to Mars, you are going to have to have beds, showers and toilets and food that you can eat instead of food you just consume.”
When asked how long he thinks it will be before humans start living on other planets, Mr Worden said “a thosuand years, maybe”.
“That’s a problem we humans have - we can’t think in terms of a thousand years, we think in terms of next year or tomorrow or next week. We are very impatient, we don’t have a long-range concept.”
Mr Worden’s visit to Limerick - which also included a lecture at LIT and the launch of the Lough Gur Spirit of Place Celebration - was all down to one self-confessed Limerick space fanatic, Paul Ryan from Ballybricken, who managed to connect with Mr Worden and secure him for the visit.
Mr Ryan explained that he had a double motivation for getting Mr Worden to come to Ireland: his life-long fascination with space, combined with it being the top item on a bucket list he devised after having two cardiac incidents at the age of 37.
Mr Ryan said there was a sigh of relief when he saw Mr Worden walk through the arrival door at Shannon Airport on Monday.
“It’s great - we are obviously excited and thrilled that he is here in Caherelly where I had my primary school education,” said Mr Ryan whose daughter Hazel is in senior infants in the school.
School principal, Fionnuala Allen, said that since the children first heard about the visit in June, “they have been very, very excited and since they came back at the end of August, our whole theme has been the theme of space.
“We have worked on poems, artwork and science activities. Even when the children came in this morning you could hear the whoops of excitement when they saw all their work hanging up.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet somebody like this. How often do you meet somebody who has actually travelled to the moon?”
Sixth class student Ava Culhane said she found the astronaut “very interesting”.
What really caught her attention was when he explained how, after all the years of training and preparation, if he was feeling or looking in any way unwell before the mission he would be told he couldn’t make the trip.
Pierce O’Neill was also hugely impressed by the visitor.