Alfred M. Worden, who orbited the moon in the summer of 1971, taking sophisticated photographs of the lunar terrain while his fellow astronauts of the Apollo 15 mission roamed its surface in a newly developed four-wheel rover, died overnight at an assisted living center in Sugar Land, Texas, his family said on Wednesday. He was 88.
His son-in-law Bill Penczak said that Mr. Worden, who had lived in League City, Texas, apparently had a stroke.
Apollo 15 was NASA’s first moon mission devoted mainly to science. The flight of Apollo 11 in July 1969 had fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s call for America to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s. But the three lunar landings that preceded Apollo 15 had yielded relatively modest insight into the moon’s origin and composition.
Major Worden, of the Air Force, spent three days in orbit operating a pair of cameras in his space capsule Endeavour.
Those photos provided the sharpest images ever taken of the moon, an achievement that led to the mapping of its rugged terrain. Major Worden also operated an extensive package of instruments to enhance knowledge of space and the moon itself.
En route home, he released a “sub-satellite” — carried by Endeavour and weighing about 78 pounds — that was designed to orbit the moon for at least a year and radio back data on its gravitational field and other technical information. It was the first time such a space vehicle had been deployed.
He also undertook the first walk in deep space, spending 38 minutes tethered to Endeavour while more than 196,000 miles from Earth as he retrieved canisters of film attached to the skin of the craft.
The other Apollo 15 crewmen — Col. David R. Scott and Lt. Col. James B. Irwin, also Air Force officers — became the seventh and eighth men to land on the moon, having descended in their Lunar Module, Falcon, from the space capsule piloted by Major Worden. They spent 18½ hours exploring its surface and covered about 17½ miles in their rover — both NASA records — and returned to the capsule for the flight home with some 170 pounds of rock and soil samples.
The mission was pronounced a success, but NASA later reprimanded the three astronauts for “poor judgment” by seeking to profit from their fame.
They had carried aboard the Apollo 15 craft several hundred specially stamped, signed and canceled envelopes commemorating the flight and sought to sell them through a West German stamp dealer. Under the deal, a total of $21,000 was to be set aside for trust funds to benefit the astronauts’ children, but any proceeds the astronauts themselves would receive were to be deferred, since they were still in the Apollo program.
The deal became public, and while the astronauts withdrew from it, with no funds going to them or their children, NASA was embarrassed and dropped all three from flight status. Major Worden and Colonel Scott were reassigned to desk jobs. Colonel Irwin had already planned to retire.
In July 1983, responding to a lawsuit filed by Mr. Worden, the federal government returned 359 stamped envelopes that NASA had seized from the astronauts, concluding that the space agency had either authorized their being brought aboard the Apollo 15 spacecraft or had known that they were taken on the flight.
But Mr. Worden was remorseful.
“No one was really supposed to arrange to make money from the program while they were still in,” he wrote in his memoir “Falling to Earth” (2011, with Francis French). “Even if I didn’t break any formal rules, in hindsight I had broken an unspoken trust.”
Alfred Merrill Worden was born on Feb. 7, 1932, outside Jackson, Mich., and grew up on a 10-acre farm that yielded little profit for his parents, Merrill and Helen Worden. One of six children, he took on many farm chores as he grew older but saw no future in that line of work.
“I was going to do anything I could so that I didn’t end up living the rest of my life on a farm,” he told Smithsonian Magazine in 2011. “So that kind of motivated me to go to school.”
He received a one-year scholarship to the University of Michigan, but when his funding ran out he applied to Annapolis and West Point, having learned that they provided free educations. He chose the United States Military Academy, graduated in 1955, then joined the Air Force, believing it offered faster promotions than were likely in the Army.
“My total time piloting an airplane at that moment? Zero,” he recalled in his memoir. “For all I knew, I was going to be the worst pilot the Air Force had ever attempted to train.”
He graduated from flight school despite his trepidation, piloted fighter jets stateside, then obtained master’s degrees in space science and engineering from Michigan in 1963. He became a test pilot and instructor afterward, then joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1966.
He was a senior executive at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California from 1972 to 1975, then retired from the space agency and the Air Force and held executive positions in the aerospace industry.
Mr. Worden is survived by his daughters Alison Penczak and Merrill Bohaning, both from his first marriage, to Pamela Ellen Vander Beek, which ended in divorce; a stepdaughter, Tamara Christians, from his marriage to Jill Lee Hotchkiss, who died in 2014; his brothers Jim and Jerry; his sisters Sally and Carolyn; and five grandchildren.
During the run-up to Apollo 15 as well as after the mission, Mr. Worden sought to enhance youngsters’ curiosity about space by filming segments for the PBS children’s program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He wrote the children’s book “I Want to Know About a Flight to the Moon” (1974).
He was a technical consultant for the 2018 movie “First Man,” in which Ryan Gosling portrayed Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to step onto the moon.
Mr. Worden also published a book of poetry in 1974, “Hello Earth: Greetings From Endeavour,” reflecting on his emotions during the flight of Apollo 15 and on the perils of spaceflight.
As he put it in one verse:
Say to me there’s too much danger
Say to me we could be lost.
Then I say I am no stranger
To the danger, that’s the cost.