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July 16, 2009

The forgotten almost-moon men

Posted: 02:13 PM ET

Only 12 men have had the honor of walking on the moon, but six astronauts were in charge of getting them there and bringing them home safely. These were the command service module pilots, whose job it was to circle the moon and return to Earth - without setting a foot on the lunar surface.

These six people are often overshadowed by the moonwalkers. Their stories are worth telling, though, especially in honor of the upcoming 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing.

The first CSM pilot is the most famous. Michael Collins flew on the Apollo 11 mission, carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon for the first lunar landing. He circled the orb for nearly a day in solitude. For 48 minutes out of each orbit he was out of radio contact with Earth.

In his autobiography, Collins wrote "this venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two." He also said he never felt lonely, but "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation."

Richard Gordon, commander of the Yankee Clipper – the Apollo 12 CSM, was the second to orbit the moon while others walked on the surface. While he circled, he mapped out potential landing sites for future missions. He was slated to walk on the moon in the Apollo 18 mission, but that mission was canceled.

Stuart Roosa spent 33 hours in orbit during Apollo 14. His skill as the CSM pilot was needed after initial attempts to dock with the lunar module failed.

Alfred Worden was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most isolated human being” while he was orbiting the moon during the Apollo 15 mission. When the Endeavour was at its greatest distance from the lunar crew, Worden was 2,235 miles away from any other human being.

Ken Mattingly is probably well known for his actions on the ground of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, but he finally did get to go to the moon for the Apollo 16 launch. Mattingly used instruments aboard Casper to map a stretch of the lunar surface all around its equator.

The final mission, Apollo 17, put Ronald Evans in control of the command module, America. Evans holds the record of more lunar time in orbit than anyone else: 147 hours, 48 minutes.

Each of these men spent countless days training next to their more-heralded moonwalker colleagues. Yet, while their capsule brethren actually touched another heavenly body, these brave astronauts could only stare out their window and marvel at the view.

- Larry Frum

Filed under: NASA • Space

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xwindowsjunkie   July 17th, 2009 1:42 pm ET

You missed the three astronauts each in Apollos 8, 10 and 13.
Yes they weren't all alone but they made the trip and still didn't touch down.

Christopher   July 17th, 2009 2:34 pm ET

You forget one important detail. All 6 of these men would have to fly home alone if something happened to the crew on the lunar surface. There was no thought of a rescue mission to save the crew. The CSM pilot would simply have to complete the TEI checklist and fly home.

Patrick Dale Millwood   July 19th, 2009 8:58 am ET

Hey Folks didnt the United States government produce a stamp for the moon lunar landing. Also there has been a big debate that USA didnt never go to the Moon and to stop the rumors why dont the USA turn the big hubble telescope around and show the lunar buggy still on the moon and the pods that was left when they took back off from the moon. Thanks

Thomas Sielaff   July 19th, 2009 11:04 am ET

Wonderful little story and one that needed to be told. I am from that era and knew almost nothing of those left in the CSM. Thank you!

John   July 19th, 2009 12:45 pm ET

The moon walks were all fake, when will you people wake up and realize that democrats perpetuated this hoax just to fool the American people into stopping the war in Vietnam. Wake up people, democrats are out to destroy is all!

Monica Ashton Productions   July 19th, 2009 3:21 pm ET

My father roomed with Michael Collins at West Point. I remember being bummed in 1969 that I was too young to go to Cape Canaveral for the Space Launch of Apollo 11. Apparently, Mike Collins got my Dad VIP tickets, etc. We used to have this great poster in our house of him also that was signed by, as far as I was concerned growing up, Michael Collins was way more important that any other astronaut, since we knew him. 🙂

Monica Ashton

Jim   July 21st, 2009 10:17 am ET

I have to agree with Patrick in his statement/question of how to silence the nay-sayers as to whether or not we indeed went to the moon. We have some of the most powerful optics available to us ever at this point. Focus on the lunar surface in the landing zones. Stop all of this garbage and debate and get a solid answer once and for all. (Or might this be why the gov't is trying to do away with the Hubble...?)

Dan   July 21st, 2009 2:11 pm ET

The Apollo landing sites are being photographed right now by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter:

Unfortunately I don't think anything will silence the faked-moon-landing morons. They'll just say that any recent photographic evidence has been photoshopped.

Jon   July 21st, 2009 2:20 pm ET

John, if you are willing to approach this question with an open mind, go to Your assertions that the moon walk was a hoax perpetrated to force an end to the war in Vietman (the logic, or lack thereof, of this statement escapes me) are rebutted there. You may even find a link to the Popular Mechanics article which does the same.

John Hansen   July 21st, 2009 3:05 pm ET

Here's a link to photos from the new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter showing the lower half of the LM's left behind on the moon. One shows a trail of astronaut footprints. But then I guess the conspiracy theorists will just say that these were faked too. They can believe that NASA kept thousands of employees quiet all these years but not that man went to the moon. Pretty incredible.

Gary Hanks   July 21st, 2009 3:06 pm ET

Everyone asking about pictures of the Apollo landing sites, go to There are current pictures of each landing site taken by the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter (LRO). Granted, conspiracy nuts will say that the photos are doctored, but no amount of evidence will ever convince them. They don't believe in evidence.

Andrew   July 21st, 2009 4:15 pm ET

@Jim and Patrick,

Unfortunately, the telescopes we have built were not built to view the surface of the moon in that sort of detail. The simple answer, they were built to see really big things that are really far away, not really little things that are really close. For the more complicated answer, just check out Wikipedia for an explanation of maximum resolution of telescopes. All hoax theories can be pretty much easily explained with a combination of physics and engineering.

Allan   July 21st, 2009 5:35 pm ET

Jim (and Patrick), the sites are too small to see from Earth (even from Earth orbit). You would need to be in orbit around the Moon, and even then you need really good optics.
Fortunately, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter recently arrived. They took pictures (which they say will get better as they optimize the LRO's performance) showing several of the Apollo landing sites:
The A14 picture is the most impressive one so far.

Shawn   July 22nd, 2009 12:35 am ET

Patrick, they can't use Hubble to see anything smaller than something house-sized on the moon. John, there were Republican Presidents in office during the moon landings, and the Democratic Party didn't have enough of a majority to do what you've accused it of doing, and do you seriously think that if all of the Democrats who were members of Congress at the time were behind a massive hoax, not a single one of them would have said something over the span of four decades? Sometimes, it's just easier for people to believe that we can't do something, instead of believing that we can.

Linda   July 22nd, 2009 8:02 am ET

Thank you for writing about these brave men.Without their skill and dedication, the others would never had the opportunity to walk on the moon. Great men indeed...all of them.

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