Mount Hadley Delta with Jim Irwin

James Irwin: Journeyed to The Moon to discover God


Astronaut James Irwin. Image Courtesy of NASA
Astronaut James Irwin. Image Courtesy of NASA

To most people, March 17th was just another day in the third month of the year. I would have counted myself with the majority of people, thinking that this was the case. That was until I came across a reference in one of the many space related newsletters that I read, that this particular date was the birthday of the eighth man to have walked upon The Moon. Why should this date have had more significance to me, than most others you may well ask? Well on one of the walls in the apartment that I live in, I have a signed print of this particular astronaut standing next to the Apollo 15 Lunar Module ‘Falcon’ along which is parked the Lunar Rover – the first vehicle to ever be driven on another world. The astronaut to whom I am referring was United States Airforce Colonel James B. Irwin.

March 17th was James Irwin’s birthday. He was born on the 17th March 1930 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States of America. If he had not died of a heart attack on August 8, 1991 (aged 61) in Glenwood Springs, Colorado – his adopted city of residence – this would have been his 83rd birthday . If I had not picked up on this little side note on the space blog that I was reading, this date and the relevance of it to me personally, would have passed by just like any other day of the year. But as I had taken note of the significance of the date, my mind went back to the day in July 1990, that I had the privilege of meeting him in person and him kindly providing me with an autograph of a print of him standing on The Moon, which is now proudly displayed in the lounge of my apartment.

Astronaut James Irwin salutes the American flag during Apollo 15 mission.
A quarter million miles from home, astronaut James Irwin salutes the flag and the achievement of the Apollo 15 mission of 1971, the fourth manned journey to the moon. David Scott, mission commander, radioed to Earth, “I realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature—man must explore.” Image and Caption, Courtesy of NASA

The occasion upon my meeting with James Irwin was that he had been asked to visit Canterbury, Kent in the United Kingdom for the opening of The Canterbury High School observatory, which had been recently completed. For its official opening, they had approached James Irwin and asked if he would be interested in being the guest of honour for the opening ceremony, that had been planned for the occasion of its first use. James Irwin – being the man he was – duly accepted the invitation. His visit ended up spanning three days, including many visits to the school and its newly opened observatory and the best part of two days being spent in the school itself – visiting classes and meeting both staff, pupils and their parents. Because of the significance of his visiting Canterbury and that he was such an accomplished speaker, these types of functions had very much become part of his life since leaving NASA and the astronaut corp. As such, he had also agreed on Monday January 15th 1990, to take part in presentation entitled The Moon – One Small Step at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. His co-host for this event was to be Carol Vorderman – a well known TV presenter and Mathematician here in the UK. Upon realising that Colonel Irwin would be presenting and answering questions about his part on the Apollo 15 mission, I immediately acquired some tickets for the occasion and along with all those others in attendance, was held in thrall at his audio/visual presentation that he had put together for these type of occasions and the question and answers session that followed.

How often do you have the opportunity of spending some time with one of only 12 human beings to have set foot on our Moon? Not only that, to also have participated in a programme such as Apollo – possibly one of the largest scientific/engineering programs ever to have been undertaken by humans, which has not been directly – or indirectly – related to war.

After a highly entertaining and utterly absorbing 2 and a half hours, it was announced that Colonel Irwin would be pleased to meet, talk and sign prints of photographs of himself standing on the moon, in the foyer of the theatre after the presentation. Thrilled at the prospect of meeting one of my boyhood heroes and one of only twelve humans to have ever walked upon the surface of The Moon, I duly purchased a print and then took my place at the back of a very, very long line of other admirers, who were also going to take this unique opportunity of meeting him.

After standing in line for what seemed an eternity, I at last reached Colonel Irwin and initially was lost for words and fumbled what I wanted to say. Colonel Irwin – being at ease and adept at handling such situations – immediately shook my hand and asked me my name. Armed with that information he then inscribed my print with these words:-

Andy
“Reach For Your Dreams – Aim High!”
James Irwin

How cool was that. He apologised to ME for the length of time I had waited and then engaged in some conversation, putting me totally at ease. He was everything that I didn’t expect an astronaut to be (but on the other hand I had no preconceived ideas what an astronaut would be like in person). He was polite, modest, understated and endowed with endless patience and charm. He never batted an eyelid or rolled an eyeball as an enthusiastic and admiring Canterbury audience asked him questions that he must have been asked thousands of times before at gatherings such as this; What was it really like up there on The Moon? Were you scared when sitting on top of that Saturn V just before it took off? How do you go to the loo in space? He fielded these questions with aplomb and remarkable patience. Answering those same – often asked – questions as if it was the first time they had ever been asked of him. Such was the stature and great humility of this man.

The one question that was not asked when recalling this remarkable event all those years ago – and since reading further of his remarkable flight and life – how I wish that I had asked of him – was the one that was probably closest to his heart; When did your realise on the surface of The Moon, that God was by your side?

I left feeling totally elated and nearly a quarter of a century later, will never forget what a privilege it was to meet – what for me was one of my boyhood heroes and not only just an astronaut – but one that had walked and indeed driven, on the surface of The Moon!

The picture of Colonel Irwin is now one of my most treasured possession and even more so, after his untimely death, when suffering one of many heart attacks that he had throughout his life. I mention his rank because when he finally left NASA and the United States Airforce in 1972, he had attained the rank of Colonel.

I will briefly now run through the facts that any keen enthusiast of the American Space Program can freely access and that is the official biographies that exist within the NASA web portal and of course, that other magnificent repository of all knowledge – Wikipedia.

My reasons for doing so are to give you some form of context as to the two distinct lives – pre and post – his Apollo 15 flight. Indeed for me, the life that he chose after closing that chapter of his life upon leaving the military and NASA and what he chose to devote his life to after, make him one of the more fascinating of the astronauts.

Apollo 15 Mission Insignia
This is the insignia designed for the Apollo 15 lunar landing mission. The circular design features the colors red, white and blue. On the outer part of the patch a narrow band of blue and a narrow band of red encircle a wider band of white. The large disc in the center of the emblem has red, white and blue symbols of flight, superimposed over an artist’s concept of the Apollo 15 Hadley-Apennine landing site of gray tone. The surnames of the three names are centered in the white band at the bottom of the insignia. The Apollo 15 prime crew men are David R. Scott, commander; Alfred M. Worden, command module pilot; and James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot. Image and Caption Courtesy of NASA

Each of the astronauts that took part in the Apollo program must have known that for the best part of a decade, they would be subject to intense media and public interest by not only the American public, but also worldwide – especially those missions that involved leaving the relative safe confines of low Earth orbit and venturing forth to The Moon. In all, a total of nine Apollo missions would re-ignite the Saturn V third stage and break free from the gravitational pull of Earth and set sail for our Moon. Those missions were Apollo 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17. Of those nine missions, Apollo’s 8, 10 and 13 would be primarily lunar orbiting missions. Apollo 8 took no lunar module with them. Apollo 10 did take a lunar module and it would indeed separate from the missions Command Module and fly their Lunar Module Snoopy to within 8.9 nautical miles of the lunar surface. Essentially this was going to be a full dress rehearsal for the next, historic Apollo 11 landing. Apollo 13 had intended to land at the Fra Mauro region of the Moon. Of course this lunar landing was never going to take place, due to the catastrophic explosion that occurred in the Apollo 13 Service Module during its outward journey to the Moon. So including Apollo 11 – Apollo’s 12, 14, 15, 16 and the last – 17 – were the successful lunar landing missions. This meant that 12 of those 18 crew members would walk on the Moon. These men would form one of the most exclusive clubs in the world – Moonwalkers. More so then any astronauts or cosmonauts that flew before or after them, this exclusive and élite group of men would always be revered and in constant demand to represent NASA. Upon finally hanging up their space boots, many would take up directorships or represent companies – particular those involved in aerospace, hi-tech or those involving exploration – such as oil or gas. Many of them would go on to form their own companies or consultancies in the early days of the commercial, private spaceflight sector.

Apollo 15 Official Crew Portrait
The prime crew of the Apollo 15 lunar landing mission. They are from left to right: Commander, David R. Scott, Command Module pilot, Alfred M. Worden and Lunar Module pilot, James B. Irwin. The Apollo 15 emblem is in the background. Image and Caption Courtesy of NASA

Most of the astronauts that returned from the Moon initially stayed with NASA and then moved on to follow-on programmes such as America’s first orbiting space station – SkyLab – the Apollo/Soyuz Test Program and of course, the Space Shuttle programme. After returning safely to Earth, each crew would carry out a full debrief of their experiences in the form of a mission debriefing. It was then customary for the returning crews to embark upon a world-wide goodwill tour. An endless successions of meetings with presidents, monarchy and high-ranking members of all nationalities. This of course was good for NASA, in that it kept them and their incredible technological and engineering achievements, front and centre in the worlds mind and helped promote the United States of America as being a world leader in all that NASA represented.

After this huge tour, the crew would then disband and go their own separate ways. For some of the Apollo crews, this was relatively straight forward. As mentioned earlier, many would stay with NASA. Others would move into education. Neil Armstrong famously became a university lecturer in aerospace at Cincinnati. Some such as Buzz Aldrin and Tom Stafford would return to military service. The transition back from being the second man to walk on the Moon would prove very difficult for Buzz Aldrin, who battled for many years with depression. And of course, you can understand this. The whole of the past 10 years of his life had reached its focal point when he stepped out of his Lunar Module Eagle that July day in 1969 and joined Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility. What on Earth do you do with your life after that?

Three moonwalkers eventually chose a different path than the rest of their peers. Ed Mitchell, the Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 14 mission, had a great interest in consciousness and paranormal phenomena. So much so, that he formed his own institute to conduct research into these subjects, called the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) after leaving NASA. He stated that during the return journey from The Moon, he conducted a psychic communications experiment from space to a selected group of co-experimenters on Earth, allegedly exchanging information between each other whilst he was in space. He also has strong beliefs in UFO’s stating publicly, that he believes that 90% of the reported UFO’s sightings that have been reported since the 1940’s are true. He has also conducted experiments in remote healing, claiming that a remote healer who used the pseudonym Adam Dreamhealer from Vancouver, helped cure him of kidney cancer. These are just a sample of some of his interests which mark Edgar Mitchell as being a very original thinker and not how you would expect an ex-astronaut-cum-military test pilot to be.

The second of these trio of astronauts that I have selected, is astronaut Charles Duke. After his Apollo 16 Moonwalk with John Young, he was awarded the honour of an Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Boy Scouts of America. Like James Irwin, both Charles Duke and his wife became committed Christians and have devoted their lives after his historic mission, to their church and ministry.

As I mentioned earlier, James Irwin was born on March 17th 1930 in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His grandparents had emigrated from Pomeroy in County Tyrone in what is now Northern Ireland during the 1850’s. His parents then moved to Salt Lake City in Utah and it was from East High School in that city that he graduated in 1947. Upon leaving school, he attended the United States Naval Academy and graduated from their with a Bachelor of Science degree in Naval Science in 1951. After obtaining his degree from the Naval Academy, he then enrolled as a student at the University of Michigan and gained Master of Science degrees in aeronautical engineering and instrumentation engineering. He graduated from their in 1957 and then joined the United States Air Force. He received his flight training at Hondo Air Force Base and Reese Air Force Base in Texas. In 1961 he graduated from the Air Force Experimental Test Pilots School and then from the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School in 1963. Upon graduating, he had a number of postings with the United States Air Force. One of these was as Chief of the Advanced Requirements Branch at Headquarters Air Defense Command. During his time in the United States Air Force he received an Air Force Distinguished Service Medal and two Air Force Commendation Medals. He also received an Outstanding Unit Citation while with the 4750th Training Wing.

Prior to joining NASA as one of 19 selected in the 1966 intake of astronauts, he was a developmental pilot on the Lockheed YF-12 programme. This plane would later become more famous as being that most exotic of spy-planes – the SR71 ‘Blackbird’.

Lockheed YF-12
Prior to joining NASA, James Irwin had been a development pilot on the Lockheed YF-12 programme. This incredible plane would after be better known as the spy-plane – SR71 Blackbird.

The only other thing of note before his joining the astronaut corp in 1966, was his suffering an air plane crash in 1961, when one of the students he was training crashed it. Both James Irwin and the student survived the crash, but he was lucky not to have one of his legs amputated. Doctor John Forrest, a U.S. Air Force orthopedic surgeon, was instrumental in preventing the amputation of his damaged leg.

From that brief description of his life and career before his becoming selected as an astronaut, there was no sign of any more deeply seated religious convictions than any of his fellow peers. That would all change after the life changing experience that he would undergo during his nearly three days on the Lunar Surface at the Apollo 15 Hadley Rille landing site in 1971.

Lift off for Apollo 15, July 26th 1971.
Apollo 15 lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at the John F. Kennedy Space Center on July 26th, 1971. Image Courtesy of NASA.

Apollo 15 launched from Launch Complex 39A at the John F. Kennedy Space Center and into a clear blue sky, on July 26, 1971. This mission would not be like any other previous lunar landing mission. Starting with Apollo 15 through to 17, all of these mission would be classified as ‘J’ class missions. All of the hardware (Saturn V launch vehicle, Command and Service Module and Lunar Module) had been configured to support lunar extravehicular activities of up to three days duration. Each of the last three landings would also be taking with them the Lunar Roving Vehicle and each of these missions, would be performing three EVA’s during their stays on the lunar surface. Because these landing sites where far more complex and were considered scientific in nature, the lunar rover would give them all the possibilities of traversing further away from the lunar module and as such enable them to bring back with them far more lunar samples. Because of the extra length of stays on these ‘J’ class missions, the launch vehicle would need more propellant to lift the extra weight of consumables and life-support – such as oxygen and other such necessities – to support the astronauts.

Higher resolution image of Apollo 15 landing site
The landing site was selected so that, with the aid of the lunar roving vehicle, astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin could check the Apennine Front at Hadley Delta, the eastern rim of Hadley Rille, and two prominent groups of craters on the mare surface. The southern group of craters, South Cluster, is a concentration of secondary craters, while the northern group, North Complex, is interpreted to be of possible volcanic origin. Unfortunately, time constraints kept the crew from being able to visit the North Complex. Image and Caption Courtesy of NASA (photograph AS15-9377[P].
James Irwin and Lunar Rover at edge of Hadley Rille during Apollo 15 mission.
Spectacular image of James Irwin photographed at the edge of Hadley Rille along with the Apollo 15 Lunar Rover.

The Apollo 15 Lunar Lander – given the name by the crew of Falcon touched down safely at its designated landing site at Hadley Rille on July 30th 1971. Because of the length of time that they had both been up since last sleeping, both astronauts decided to choose the option of sleeping before venturing out on their first scheduled EVA. This made good sense, because hopefully, they would be refreshed before taking their first drive of the Lunar Rover and it would also keep their sleep patterns regulated to that which they had already adopted since leaving Earth. What they both did do before sleeping, was carry out a stand-up EVA and take extensive photographs, with detailed descriptions of the environs surrounding Falcon for the geologists supporting the mission back at Mission Control in Texas.

It was during the second of their scheduled EVA’s – the destination of which was in and around the foothills of Mount Hadley Delta – that both James Irwin and Mission Commander David Scott found the famous Apollo rock sample #15415, more commonly known as the “Genesis Rock”. This sample was the oldest recorded rock sample brought back from The Moon. Carbon dating of the age of this sample, placed its origin as being in the order of 4.5 billion years old. Because of the extensive geological training that the two astronauts had undertaken this mission, they were able to recognise this particular sample for what it was, part of the original material that The Moon had been formed from. Without that training, they could have easily have not recognised that particular sample for what it was and indeed, the scientific importance of it.

After spending nearly three days on the lunar surface, performing three EVA’s of nearly 18 and a half hours duration, they bought back with them 170lbs of lunar samples.

Upon docking with their Command Module Endeavour both the Command Module Pilot – Alfred Worden – along with Scott and Irwin, proceeded to transfer the precious lunar samples back into the Command Module, along with other items that they needed to bring back with them. They then reconfigured the Lunar Module for its last separation from the Command Module, sending it into a decaying orbit around The Moon, from which it would ultimately impact upon the lunar surface.

It was during this period of frenetic activity aboard the still joined spacecraft that the astronauts Flight Surgeon – Charles Berry – noted that something was not right with James Irwin’s heart.

Both Scott and Irwin had endured an extremely gruelling schedule since docking Falcon with Endeavour. After performing the last of their three planned EVA’s, then configuring and performing a successful take off and docking in lunar orbit with the Command Module, followed by transferring across all the lunar samples and other equipment, it had nearly been 23 hours since last they rested. As was the case throughout any spaceflight, flight surgeons back in Mission Control were constantly monitoring the astronauts vital signs. It was whilst performing these activities that they became concerned that James Irwin’s heart was displaying signs of irregularities in his heart beat. Dr Charles Berry recognised that what he was displaying was a condition called bigeminy. Dr Charles Berry talked over his concerns with Christopher Kraft, the deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center his concerns stating: “It’s serious, if he were on Earth. I’d have him in ICU (intensive care unit) being treated for a heart attack.”Endeavour’s cabin atmosphere was 100% oxygen when in space, so it was decided that he was in no danger by Dr. Charles Berry. Specifically, “In truth,…he’s in an ICU (intensive care unit). He’s getting one hundred percent oxygen, he’s being continuously monitored, and best of all, he’s in zero g. Whatever strain his heart is under, well, we can’t do better than zero g.”

A couple of months after successfully returning to Earth, Jim Irwin suffered the first of many heart attacks that he was going to endure, the last of which occurred on August 8th 1991, resulting in his untimely death.

For the last twenty years of his life, Jim Irwin would devote his life to spreading the message of Christianity and God to all those who wished to listen, via the foundation that he established called The Hi Flight Foundation. Jim Irwin firmly believed that whilst on the lunar surface, his life had been touched by God. He states two particular instances where he felt God had been with him and by his opening his heart to allow him to enter, had a direct influence on the success of his mission. He felt that it was no mere co-incidence that they discovered the Genesis Rock. He describes its discovery as follows:

‘Scientists believe the rock dates back to the time the original lunar crust was formed, which they estimate at 4.5 billion years. “It was remarkable,” Irwin commented later. “It was sitting on a pedestal rock almost free from dust. It seemed to be saying, ‘Here I am, take me.’”

What follows is a further recollection of what Jim Irwin felt on the Moon with the experience of it having a profound influence upon his life after his return to Earth. What you are about to read are recollections of what Jim Irwin recounted to his wife and her describing those feelings and emotions which he recounted to her:

“I was just amazed to see the earth,” he said. “It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament – a very fragile one, hanging majestically in space. It was very touching to see earth from that perspective.”

At one point, Jim had trouble with a planned experiment. “He was erecting an experiment that wouldn’t erect, due to a cotter pin or something of that nature,” Mary recalls. Frustrated in his attempts to get the experiment to work, Irwin decided he would pray. While raised in a Christian home – and a believer and churchgoer since age 10, he was a nominal Christian at this stage of his life. “Maybe he walked away from his walk with the Lord a little,” Mary suggests. “He described himself as a ‘bump on a log Christian.’”

But he really needed wisdom due to this problem and he said, “God I need your help right now.” Suddenly Irwin experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in a remarkable way, unlike anything he ever felt on earth. “The Lord showed him the solution to the problem and the experiment erected before him like a little altar,” Mary says.

“He was so overwhelmed at seeing and feeling God’s presence so close,” she says. “At one point he turned around and looked over his shoulder as if He was standing there.”

This unusual encounter with Jesus – some 238,000 miles from earth, changed Irwin’s life forever.

It was as a direct result of these experiences that Jim Irwin devoted the rest of his life, sharing them with anyone who would care to listen, with what he discovered during his time on the lunar surface. Through his ministry – The Hi Flight Foundation, he became an ambassador for Jesus Christ and God and wanted to share his feeling and thoughts by traveling the world and presenting his audio visual presentation – that which I and others were privileged to share with him at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury – a year before he died.

Mount Ararat, Turkey
Mount Ararat seen from the entrance to the Ahora Gorge which blew out in an explosion in 1840. Image and Caption Courtesy of http://www.setterfield.org.

Alongside conducting his ministry through the Hi-Flight Foundation he also conducted two expeditions to Mount Ararat in Turkey, in search of what was thought to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark. In 1982 he reached the 17,000 ft summit of the mountain, only to slip and fall on a glacier, suffering severe lacerations to his face and legs. The following year he carried out a survey of the mountain and its summit by aircraft, still hoping to find the elusive Ark. Yet again he concludes in his own words:

“It’s easier to walk on the moon,” he said. “I’ve done all I possibly can, but the Ark continues to elude us.”

One last quotation from James Irwin pretty well sums up his outlook to his life and what motivated him after his flight to The Moon on Apollo 15:

“In the three days of exploration, there were a couple of times when I actually looked up to see the Earth,” he wrote.

“That beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”

“As I travel around I tell people the answer is Jesus Christ, that Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.”

Who are we to doubt what this man felt and saw on his remarkable stay on The Moon? And what more nobler a cause could he have devoted his life to than that which he chose? A truly remarkable man who touched the lives of many on his quest to share with us all, what he felt and discovered about himself on that incredible journey to The Moon.

I for one feel better and my life slightly more enriched by that brief moment in time that I shared with him twenty three years ago.

For those of you interested in learning more about the High Flight Foundation that Colonel Irwin founded then please click on to this link.

The grave of James Irwin at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington DC.
The grave of James Irwin at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington DC.

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