Monday, July 26, 2021

50th Anniversary: Pittsburgh Native Walks on Moon


Pittsburgh native James Irwin gives a military salute to the American Flag at the Hadley-Apennine landing site of Apollo 15 on the Moon, on 1971 August 2. Seen next to James Irwin is the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), which landed him and Dave Scott on the Moon, and the Lunar Rover [officially known as the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV)]; Apollo 15 was the first mission to use a Lunar Rover.

(Image Sources: NASA,, By NASA Johnson Space CenterRestored by Bammesk - This file was derived from: AS15-88-11866 (21648389932).jpgOriginal by: Project Apollo Archive at, Public Domain,

By Glenn A. Walsh

Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

Fifty years ago, on 1971 July 31, August 1 & 2, Pittsburgh native James B. Irwin became the eighth human to walk on the Moon. Accompanied to the lunar surface by Dave Scott, with Alfred Worden remaining in the Command Module, this was the Apollo 15 mission to the Moon, which included the first use of an automobile on the Moon called a Lunar Roving Vehicle.

It was 50 years ago today (July 26) that Apollo 15 launched toward the Moon from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Apollo 15 was the first (of three flown) NASA “J Mission” to the Moon, which provided for a longer stay on the Moon as well as more of an emphasis on scientific exploration than earlier Apollo, lunar landing missions. James Irwin was the Lunar Module Pilot for the Apollo 15 mission, while David R. Scott (the seventh person to step onto the Moon) was mission Commander and Alfred M. Worden was the Command Module Pilot.

Of course, the new part of the Apollo 15 mission was the introduction of the electric battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle (better known as the Lunar Rover or 'Moon Buggy') on the surface of the Moon. Originally conceived in the early 1960s as a closed-cabin vehicle, somewhat like a normal automobile but with the addition of a mini-laboratory (titled MOLAB for Mobility Laboratory), weighing as much as 6,000 pounds / 2,700 kilograms, by the time the contract was let to Boeing for three Lunar Rovers for three missions, it had been decided that such a heavy vehicle was unnecessary since Federal funding cuts would not permit the establishment of a lunar base in the foreseeable future. So, a scaled-down, four-wheeled Lunar Rover was developed weighing 460 pounds / 210 kilograms.

Each Lunar Rover could carry a maximum payload of 1,080 pounds / 490 kilograms, including seating for two astronauts along with equipment and lunar samples. The top speed for the Lunar Rover was designed to be 8 miles-per-hour / 13 kilometers-per-hour, although on the last Apollo mission to the Moon, Apollo 17, the speed reached 11.2 miles-per-hour / 18.0 kilometers-per-hour.

Each of the three Lunar Rovers, which all remain on the Moon, drove an average of 18.6 statute miles / 30 kilometers, without incident. The Apollo 15 Lunar Rover traveled a total of 17.25 statute miles / 27.76 kilometers within 3 hours and 2 minutes of travel time. The Apollo 15 Lunar Rover traveled a maximum 3.1 statute miles / 5.0 kilometers from the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) which landed James Irwin and Dave Scott on the Moon; the longest single traverse was 7.75 statute miles / 12.47 kilometers.

Due to the newness of the Lunar Rover, and the unknown reliability in the lunar environment, this limited the usefulness during the mission. In case the Lunar Rover stalled, the astronauts had to be close enough to walk back to the LEM.

Each Lunar Rover was tucked into Apollo 15's Lunar Excursion Module's Quadrant 1 Bay. To commemorate the first driving vehicle on the Moon, the LEM, with the call-sign Falcon (named after the U.S. Air Force Academy mascot), included a plaque which read: "Man's First Wheels on the Moon, Delivered by Falcon, July 30, 1971".

The Lunar Rover allowed James Irwin and Dave Scott to do more scientific exploration and collect lunar samples from a greater distance from the LEM, than previous missions. The Lunar Rover was used on three separate Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) trips, with Dave Scott as the driver and James Irwin as the navigator.

In addition to proving the concept of the Lunar Rover, Apollo 15 achieved all of the mission objectives. This included surveying and sampling an area of the Hadley Rille and Apennine Mountains region of the Moon, installing lunar surface experiments, and evaluation of the capability for Apollo equipment to provide extended stay-time for astronauts on the Moon. According to the “Apollo 15 Mission Report”: Apollo 15 "was the fourth lunar landing and resulted in the collection of a wealth of scientific information. The Apollo system, in addition to providing a means of transportation, excelled as an operational scientific facility."

James Benson Irwin was born in Pittsburgh on 1930 March 17. He lived his first eleven years in the South Hills section of the City of Pittsburgh, first in the Beechview neighborhood and later a mile east in the Brookline neighborhood. When James Irwin was eleven years-old, the Irwin family moved to Florida.

His father was a steamfitter running the power plant at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute, which includes the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Museum of Art, the main branch of Carnegie Library, and the Carnegie Music and Lecture Halls. James Irwin wrote in his autobiography, To Rule the Night, that he was enthralled by Carnegie Institute's world-class collection of dinosaur skeletons. He wrote, "Some of my earliest memories are of waiting for Dad in this tremendous place". Later in the autobiography, he wrote how his imagination was stirred by his visits to Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science.

By age 12, James Irwin had told his mother that he wanted to be the first person to walk on the Moon! This would have been in 1942, just after the United States had entered World War II. As mentioned, he was the eighth human (of 12 Apollo astronauts) to walk on the Moon.

He attended middle school and high school in Salt Lake City, graduating from East High School in 1947. According to Delta College Planetarium Manager / Astronomer Mike Murray (who lived a few blocks from East High School, 2002 to 2015), East High School has a small historical display regarding James Irwin. Later in 1947, Jim Irwin attended the annual church picnic, at the church he had attended in Pittsburgh, the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Beechview.

James Irwin attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Naval Science in 1951. He went on to earn Master of Science degrees in Aeronautical Engineering and Instrumentation Engineering from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1957; the University of Michigan was the first U.S. college to offer an Aeronautical Engineering degree, beginning in 1914.

James Irwin received flight training in Texas, first at the Hondo Air Base and then at Reese Air Force Base. In 1961, he graduated from the Air Force Experimental Flight Test Pilot School (Class 60C). In 1963, he graduated from Aerospace Research Pilot School (Class IV).

Before joining NASA on 1966 April 4 (when he was in the fifth group of astronauts selected by NASA, one of 19 astronauts selected for Moon mission training), James Irwin was Chief of the Advanced Requirements Branch at Headquarters Air Defense Command. He also was a developmental test pilot for the Lockheed YF-12 Mach 3 fighter-interceptor.

As a training instructor, James Irwin suffered compound fractures, amnesia, and nearly lost one leg after the crash of a training airplane flown by one of his student pilots; the student also survived the crash. U.S. Air Force orthopedic surgeon John Forrest was able to prevent the amputation of James Irwin's leg.

While in the military, James Irwin accumulated more than 7,015 hours of flying time (5,300 hours in jet aircraft). He received the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, two Air Force Commendation Medals, and an Air Force Outstanding Unit Citation while with the 4750th Training Wing.

At NASA, James Irwin served as part of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 10, the “dress-rehearsal” in lunar orbit for the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. He was then assigned as back-up Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 12, the second crewed mission to land on the Moon, before being assigned to the Apollo 15 mission.

James Irwin accumulated more than 295 hours of space flight. More than 18 of those hours were in Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), outside the LEM on the Moon..

He retired from NASA and the U.S. Air Force in 1972 as a Colonel. He had not been very religious since about the age of 10. This all changed when he returned from the Moon. He said that during the Apollo 15 mission, “I felt the power of God as I'd never felt it before.” He also said, “Jesus walking on the Earth is more important than man walking on the Moon."

In 1972 he created the High Flight Foundation in Colorado Springs, which helped him spread the Christian Gospel around the world. For nearly 20 years, he and his family traveled the globe sharing his unique experience and a message of hope and encouragement.

Starting in 1973, James Irwin led several expeditions to Mount Ararat in Turkey, in his search for the remains of Noah's Ark. He considered the biblical scripture in the Book of Genesis to be real, literal history. During one expedition in 1982, he was injured during the descent down the mountain and had to be carried on horse-back.

After a two-year, first marriage in 1952, James Irwin married the former Mary Ellen Monroe in 1959. Although there were marital problems in the second marriage, particularly during the NASA years, their marriage survived until James Irwin's death in 1991. They considered James Irwin's born-again, Christian faith, following the return from the Moon, had helped to solidify the marriage. With his second wife, he had five children: Joy, Jill, James, Jan, and Joe.

James Irwin was the first, and youngest, of the Apollo astronauts to die. He passed-away from his fourth heart attack on 1991 August 8 at age 61. NASA physicians believed that space travel had nothing to do with his heart attacks. They noted that a tendency for cardiac arrhythmias, during strenuous exercise, had been observed during pre-flight testing.

The mother (Eleanor Alsnauer) and maternal grandparents (Louis and Margaret Alsnauer) of the author (Glenn A. Walsh) knew James Irwin when he was young. The Irwin family lived just a couple blocks from the Alsnauer family in Pittsburgh's Beechview neighborhood.

Both families attended the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on the edge of the Beechview Business District. James Irwin and Eleanor Alsnauer both attended Lee Elementary School, just a block up the hill from the Alsnauer residence. Even after the Irwin family moved out-of-town, both families would continue to correspond, including with annual Christmas cards.

The author remembers the Saturday afternoon, in April of 1966, when his grandfather showed him the news article, from the Tuesday, 1966 April 5 edition of The Pittsburgh Press (Page 8), reporting that James Irwin had been selected as one of the astronauts to train for missions to the Moon. The author's grandfather knew that the author had a great interest in the American Space Program, even at the young age of 10.


                                        James B. Irwin in his official NASA photograph. 

                                                           (Image Sources: NASA, New Mexico State University)

Internet Links to Additional Information ---

James Irwin:

Link 1 >>> 

Link 2 >>> 

"Pittsburgh Native Named Astronaut."

The Pittsburgh Press 1966 April 5. Page 8.

 Link >>> 

Apollo 15:

Link 1 >>> 

Link 2 >>> 

Link 3 >>> 

Link 4 >>> 

Related Blog-Posts ---

"American Lunar Society Founder on 50th Anniversary: 1st Humans Orbit Moon." Mon., 2018 Dec.24.

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"45th Anniversary: Apollo 8 Orbits the Moon Christmas Eve." Tue., 2013 Dec. 24.

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"American Lunar Society Founder on 50th Anniversary: 1st Humans Walk on Moon !" Tue., 2019 July 16.

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"45 Years Ago: Man Lands on the Moon !" Sun., 2014 July 20.

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"50th Anniversary: NASA's Most Successful Failure." (Apollo 13) Mon., 2020 April 13.

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Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.

                 Monday, 2021 July 26.

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Glenn A. Walsh, Informal Science Educator & Communicator:
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Electronic Mail: < >
Project Director, Friends of the Zeiss: Link >>>
SpaceWatchtower Editor / Author: Link >>>
Formerly Astronomical Observatory Coordinator & Planetarium Lecturer, original Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), Pittsburgh's science & technology museum from 1939 to 1991.
Formerly Trustee, Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, Pennsylvania.
Author of History Web Sites on the Internet --
* Buhl Planetarium, Pittsburgh: Link >>>  Buhl Observatory: Link >>>
* Adler Planetarium, Chicago: Link >>>
* Astronomer, Educator, Optician John A. Brashear: Link >>>
* Andrew Carnegie & Carnegie Libraries: Link >>>

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