James Irwin, Apollo 15 astronaut

James Irwin

1930 - 1991
by David F. Coppedge

This individual was not a scientist in a professional sense; he was an astronaut, and not just an astronaut, but one of the 12 people in history who has walked on the moon.  But what is a scientist?  If we mean by the word a seeker for truth, someone who uses observation and experimentation to uncover explanations for natural phenomena, then anyone can be a scientist more or less.

James Irwin qualifies more than most.  He deployed scientific experiments on the surface of the moon, and helped earth-bound scientists uncover many important facts about our celestial neighbor.  To qualify for his rigorous Apollo training, he had to know more than most about celestial mechanics, astronomy, and geology.  Even after his historic mission, James Irwin used his scientific training on some rigorous expeditions of discovery most historians don’t tell you about.

Jim Irwin in "Moon Rovers" by Alan Bean

Jim Irwin in “Moon Rovers” by Alan Bean

When you lean far back and look up, you can see the earth like a beautiful, fragile Christmas tree ornament hanging against the blackness of space.  It’s as if you could reach out and hold it in your hand.  That’s a feeling, a perception, I had never anticipated.  And I don’t think it’s blasphemous for me to say I felt I was seeing the earth with the eyes of God.  I believe, looking back on it now, the good Lord did have His hand in it.  For me to travel such a roundabout way, and finally end up in the space program, and then go to the moon—it’s amazing it ever happened.

To Rule the Night, by James IrwinThus begins Jim Irwin’s book To Rule the Night (Holman, Nashville, 1973, 1982), an autobiographical account of the events leading up to and following his historic Apollo 15 mission to the moon.  Written with the help of William A. Emerson, Jr., the book’s title is taken from Genesis 1:14, “And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.”  (That the moon shines by reflection makes it no less a “light” than a lamp; we speak still of a bright full moon.)  For millennia, people saw the lesser light from earth.  What a rare privilege to see the earth from the lesser light!  Surely God’s handiwork must seem all the more sublime to see our home, blue and brilliant, standing out against the stars.

Irwin’s comment that it was amazing it ever happened stems from the fact that up into his Air Force career, he did not seem to have either qualifications or interest in the space program to have ended up in such a privileged position.  He did not get particularly high grades, and seemed rather bored with military life.  He was expecting to fulfill his term and get a job as a commercial pilot when he had a chance to fly a P-51, the hottest new aircraft of the time.  Feeling all that power as he accelerated almost vertically, that was the turning point.  He was hooked.  He lived to fly.

Even after becoming passionate about flying, it was still amazing Irwin ever made it into the astronaut corps.  He had a serious accident as a test pilot at Edwards that left him hospitalized and grounded.  He had high blood pressure and heart problems.  And despite repeated attempts, he was turned down by NASA, until he was just about at the age limit (36).  With only one month to spare, and with his superiors going to bat for him, he finally got a call in spring 1966 from Deke Slayton, inviting him to come to Houston.  “I’m ready,” he said eagerly.  “When do you want me?”  He had trained hard, exercised hard and tested hard; by this time, he felt he had the best qualifications of all the Air Force candidates.

Apollo 15 launch July 26, 1971

Apollo 15 launch, July 26, 1971

We’ll fast-forward past the astronaut training (those interested can read the book) and let Irwin describe another rare privilege he had: riding on top of one of Wernher von Braun’s mighty Saturn V rockets.  On the morning of July 21, 1971, strapped into his seat beside Col. David R. Scott (mission commander) and Major Alfred M. Worden (command module pilot), Col. James B. Irwin gripped the controls at the word, “Ignition.”

We sensed and then heard all that tremendous power being released underneath us on the pad.  Slowly, tremulously, the rocket began to stir….
The muffled roar flows through you.  You just hang there.  Then you sense a little motion, a little vibration, and you start to move.  Once you realize you are moving, there is a complete release of tensions.  Slowly, slowly, then faster and faster; you feel all that power underneath you….
As you build up to 4 G’s, you weigh four times as much as you do on the earth, and you are plastered against the couch….it is difficult to raise your arms to touch a switch or move a lever….
Just then you come into staging and the engine shuts down—WHAM!  All of a sudden you are thrown forward against your straps.  It feels as if you are going to go right into the instrument panel; you unconsciously put your hands up to absorb the impact.  You are holding, just lying there.  The engine shuts down, the structure unloads, and the spent stage drops off.  That’s a hundred feet of rocket dropping off.  After an interval of a few seconds the next stage lights off –BAM!  You are pushed back on the couch again…. The guys who briefed us told us that when you go through staging it feels like a train wreck.

The ship accelerated up to 18,000 mph into earth orbit, but reached almost 25,000 mph during trans-lunar injection (TLI).  In the book, Irwin describes all the experiences of flight, the approach of the moon, and the feeling of walking on the surface in personal, human terms.  He was the eighth man of 12 to walk on the moon.  We get to share vicariously what it must have been like, because he realized he was a representative of America and of all people of the earth, fulfilling the dreams of millions.

Dave Scott and Jim Irwin in "Hadley Rille" by Alan Bean

Scott and Irwin in “Hadley Rille” by Alan Bean

Apollo 15 was a highly successful and interesting mission.  Irwin and Scott were the first to use the new Lunar Rover, an “$8 million dune buggy” as he called it.  Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean (for whom Irwin was alternate), reminisced, “Dave and Jim could travel faster, gather more samples, and make more scientific observations with their lunar wheels.  It was a great mission.” (Bean, p. 32).  They found a bright crystalline rock sitting on a pedestal, later dubbed the “Genesis Rock”, that was significant for planetary scientists studying the moon’s origin.*  Interestingly, their scoops only went in about 12 inches before hitting very resistant hardpan (p. 78).  They saw layering on the mountains that was difficult to explain geologically.  Irwin saw colors on the moon: not only the grays and whites, but light greens and browns.

Ceremony on the Plain at Hadley, by Alan Bean

In this painting of James Irwin’s famous salute, Apollo 12 astronaut-turned-artist Alan Bean painted in Commander Dave Scott who didn’t make it into the original photo because he was behind the camera.  In person at JPL on November 12, 1998, at a book-signing event, Alan Bean graciously authorized David Coppedge free use of his artwork.  This painting is named “Ceremony on the Plain at Hadley” from Apollo: An Eyewitness Account by Astronaut / Explorer / Artist / Moonwalker Alan Bean, p. 144.

The strenuous work Irwin put in on the moon may have caused strain that contributed to his later heart problems.  Nevertheless, the two astronauts fulfilled a huge amount of observation, rock collecting and experiments, and had a little time for fun, too.  Jim tried broad jumping and got three feet high and 10 feet across in that bulky suit and backpack that would have made him weigh 380 lbs on earth, but only 64 on the moon in 1/6 earth gravity.  The suits restricted movement a lot.  They had to walk by jumping from the ball of one foot to the other.  It felt, Irwin said, “like walking on a trampoline—the same lightness, the same bouncy feeling” (p. 64).  They had to be careful in their play, though; one tear in the suit, and the blood would boil, and an astronaut would have 10 to 20 seconds to live.  Most of the lunar surface was soft soil, however, so this was only a remote danger.

On live camera, Dave Scott dropped a hammer and feather together to demonstrate to schoolchildren all over the world that “Mr. Galileo was right” – objects of different masses really do fall at the same speed.  Jim stepped on the feather by mistake and lost it, much to Dave’s chagrin, who wanted to save it for posterity.  Irwin thought, “I’m wondering if hundreds of years from now somebody will find a falcon’s feather under a layer of dust on the surface of the moon and speculate on what strange creature blew in there” (p. 85).  It will probably be obvious.  Without erosion on the moon, the footprints and all the flight hardware left behind will still be intact, providing clear evidence of “intelligent design” having been responsible.  Scott’s historic photo of Irwin saluting against the backdrop of Mt. Hadley (higher than Mt. Everest), with the lunar module, rover and American flag all in place, became a poster print Irwin sent to all who requested one back on earth, signed, His love from the moon – Jim Irwin.

Autographed photo of James Irwin, Apollo 15

Jim felt God’s love and presence in a powerful way out there.  Though separated from home by 215,000 miles, he sensed a nearness and presence of God that he never anticipated.  Some other Apollo astronauts also had spiritual experiences during their missions, but Irwin knew the God of the Bible personally.  In the midst of their hectic schedule, he had time to briefly quote his favorite Bible verse, Psalm 121:1, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.  It was particularly fitting against the massive hills of the Apennine Mountains and canyons of Hadley Rille, but we must hasten to verse 2, which gives the answer to the question: My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  Graciously deferring to the hard-working ground crew back on Earth, Jim appended, “but of course we get quite a bit from Houston, too.”  Several times when problems arose deploying experiments, he prayed for help.  Almost immediately, ideas would come to mind that worked.  He describes some of these moments:

It was almost like a revelation.  God was telling me what to do.  I never asked Houston because I knew there would be a delay.  I didn’t have time for Houston to get an answer to me; I needed an immediate answer.  I could see several logical ways to go about solving these mechanical problems, but I wanted to know the best way.  I prayed, and immediately I knew the answer.  I am not talking about some vague sense of direction.  There was this supernatural sensation of His presence.  If I needed Him I could call on Him, call on His power.  (To Rule the Night,p. 19)

He describes the sensation of looking up at home:

In the three days of exploration, there were a couple of times when I actually looked up to see the earth—and it was a difficult maneuver in that bulky suit; you had to grab onto something to hold yourself steady and then lean back as far as you could.  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.  (Ibid., p. 60.)

Alan Bean autographAlan Bean, mentioned earlier, has given the world a legacy unlike any of the other twelve Apollo astronauts.  He became an artist.  His large-format book of paintings, with text by Andrew Chaikin and introduction by John Glenn, Apollo, An Eyewitness Account by Astronaut / Explorer / Artist / Moonwalker Alan Bean (Greenwich Workshop, 1998), is a must for Apollo aficionados.  Bean’s impressionistic works capture the spirit and feeling of events from all the Apollo missions in ways that photographs never could.  Intimately acquainted with the mission vehicles and lunar activities, as well as the lighting and sensations of being on the moon as only one could who has been there, Bean’s art combines accurate detail with feeling.  He captures moments both momentous and whimsical that the cameras missed, and captions each painting with first-person accounts of the experiences that inspired each work.  Alan Bean had a special place in his heart for Jim Irwin.  More than any of the other Apollo team members, Alan considered Jim a brother.  Adjacent to a dignified painting of Irwin in the Apollo spacesuit, Mt. Hadley reflected in the visor, Bean wrote this tribute:

My Brother Jim Irwin, by Alan Bean

My Brother Jim Irwin, by Alan Bean

MY BROTHER, JIM IRWIN — Jim Irwin was assigned as my backup on Apollo 12.  He knew his job extremely well.  I knew that if anything happened to me at the last minute, Jim Irwin would do an excellent job on our mission and fit right in with Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon.

It was easy to like Jim.  He had a personality that suggested you could have a lot of confidence in him.  He wasn’t an individual who tried to convince you that what he was doing was right or what you were doing was wrong, it was more like he wanted to work with you, and find the best way to do something together.

He flew a wonderful flight on Apollo 15 in July, 1971.  He and Dave Scott were there 3 days and had what I felt was the greatest mission of Apollo up to that point.  Not only because theirs was the first extended lunar scientific expedition, but because of their skill.  While they were on the moon, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin worked extremely hard and displayed some heart irregularities.  It was only after they got back that they discovered the extent of NASA’s concern for them and worry that this situation may have caused permanent damage.

After all the post-flight activities were complete, Jim left NASA and founded High Flight, an interdenominational evangelical organization devoted to spreading his word, his witnessing, his experience to other people.  Jim described being on the moon as a deeply spiritual experience.  Less than two years later, Jim experienced the first of several serious heart attacks.  He felt that his physical efforts on the moon, combined with the way the human body eliminates excessive potassium and other minerals in zero gravity, had damaged his heart.  He died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 61.

We used to see each other at astronaut reunions or accidentally in airports from time to time, and when we parted company, he would put his arm around me and say, “Well, I hope to see you again soon, brother.”  It was a surprise the first time as that isn’t the way one astronaut talks to another and I didn’t know what to say.  After this happened a few times, I wanted to reply because I felt very close to him but I just couldn’t make myself say those words.  Since I left the space program and became an artist, I think differently about myself and my life.  I miss Jim a lot and I understand how I miss him and respect him as the brother I never had.  (Bean, p. 152.)

The crew of Apollo 15 had a very successful return flight, followed by the usual parades and visits with international dignitaries: President Nixon, King Hussein of Jordan, Golda Meir of Israel, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and to numerous countries in Europe and the far east, including Taiwan, and even Russia during the height of the Cold War.  One unfortunate episode got the crew in trouble, however.  With the crew’s knowledge and participation, Dave Scott had taken 400 envelopes with first-day stamps to the moon and sold them to a German dealer, who in turn sold them for a lot more money.  The rules about profiting from Apollo had been unclear, it seems, but NASA was very concerned about the appearance of impropriety when the matter became known, and reprimanded the crew members.  All accepted the reprimand honorably, and monies were returned, such that none of them profited from the matter.  NASA subsequently imposed severe restrictions on what astronauts could sell from their experiences.  Other than this learning experience, the reputations of the crew members were impeccable.  Jim’s wife Mary often traveled with him.  They had five children: Joy, Jill, James, Jan, and Joe, and called Colorado Springs their home.

James Irwin speakingIt’s a hard act to follow, walking on the moon, yet Irwin’s career was, in a way, just starting to take off.  When speaking to a Baptist church one evening, telling about the closeness to God he felt on the moon, he realized he was in a unique position to share the gospel.  People were enthusiastically interested to hear what an astronaut had to say, especially one who was a Christian.   James Irwin business cardJim started a non-profit organization named High Flight Foundation, based on the famous poem of that name.  It had two missions: to share the gospel from his experiences as an astronaut, and to stimulate archaeological research in support of the Bible.  In spite of heart problems, Jim took on some heavy-duty adventures: climbing Mt. Ararat in Turkey to investigate claims that remains of Noah’s Ark had been found, and searching for possible sites of the Red Sea crossing by Moses and the Israelites.  Irwin’s reputation unlocked doors with foreign governments.  As a result, he was able to get clearances to bring teams and equipment to sites that had been frustratingly difficult to get near for other researchers.

John McIntosh and James Irwin at Mt. Ararat

John McIntosh and James Irwin at Mt. Ararat in 1983. Courtesy John McIntosh.

Mt. Ararat (nearly 16,945 ft., in eastern Turkey), with its loose rock, harsh winds, glaciers, deep gorges and landslides, is one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb.  Irwin led teams up the slopes five times.

Jim Irwin on Ararat, 1982, injured from a fall

Irwin, 1982, on Ararat at the moment of rescue. Courtesy John McIntosh.

On the 1982 expedition, Irwin was knocked unconscious by a falling rock.  He lost several teeth and a lot of blood.  After spending the night alone in the cold above 14,000 ft, he was barely discovered in time by a team member, and had to be carried on a stretcher down the mountain.

Of the dangers of this kind of work, Irwin wrote, “We faced risk of physical danger, for Ararat is a crumbling mountain.  Every few minutes we could hear rock slides and small avalanches.  We slept in numbing cold, fell on loose rock, dodged tumbling boulders, grew exhausted from high-altitude climbing, had feet sore with blisters, had painfully cracked lips from sunburn, received various cuts and nicks, all in pursuit of a hidden and uncertain treasure.”


He wrote a book after the third expedition, entitled More Than an Ark on Ararat: Spiritual lessons learned while searching for Noah’s Ark (Broadman, 1985).  In it, he tells this story and other adventures.  (He signed my copy, ”David – He shows His love on the mountains too!  Jim Irwin, Apollo 15.”)

Irwin book on Mt Ararat with autograph

Unlike some sensationalists, Irwin never claimed to have found the Ark, but was keenly interested in following up on leads and eyewitness reports.  John McIntosh, another Ark researcher involved in 14 research expeditions and 7 climbs on Ararat, met Irwin at base camp at the 11,000 foot level in 1982.  McIntosh was welcomed aboard Irwin’s team and worked with him for five years.  He says of Irwin, “I think he impressed everyone he met as a very gracious, loving, dedicated and generous Christian brother” (personal communication, 2003).  Irwin was still planning expeditions to Ararat when his final, fatal heart attack took him home to be with the Lord in 1991.

For the 20 years God gave him after his lunar expedition, Jim Irwin never hesitated to share the gospel.  He responded to Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, who asked if the moon mission had changed his life or strengthened his faith, and said, “Before the flight, I was not really a religious man.  I believed in God, but I really had nothing to share.  But when I came back from the moon, I felt so strongly that I had something that I wanted to share with others, that I established High Flight in order to tell all men everywhere that God is alive, not only on earth, but also on the moon.”  (Irwin, p. 243).  The details of that message, that he shared countless times to attentive audiences, is his own adaptation of the well-known Four Spiritual Laws from Campus Crusade for Christ (Ibid., pp. 231-232):

  • God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.  The highest flight plan man can have on earth is to understand this love and this personal plan.  [Irwin quotes John 3:16]
  • Man is sinful and separated from God, thus he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.  Man’s flight plan is marred because he is sinful and separated from God.  This is much like being separated from the Command Module in a space walk.  Man will die unless he is reconnected.  [He quotes Romans 3:23 and 6:23]
  • Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin.  Through Him you can know and experience God’s plan for your life.  The connecting link, like the umbilical cord on a space walk, between God and man is Jesus Christ.  [Quotes John 14:6 and I John 5:11-12]
  • We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord: Then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.  The connecting link must be made personally.  It isn’t something someone else can do for us.  It is intensely personal and private.  [Quotes Revelation 3:20].  Asking Him in is personally accepting Him.

James Irwin in Apollo spacesuitOnly after viewing earth from the moon, and totally dedicating his life to Christ, did Col. James B. Irwin begin to sense how amazing a flight plan could be, when its designer was not only the voice from the Command Module, but the Manufacturer of all the flight hardware: yet near and loving enough to call him “Brother Jim”:
For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: “I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.”
(Hebrews 2:11-12).


*Irwin describes the “Genesis Rock” as being  4.15 billion years old (To Rule the Night, p. 77).  John McIntosh believes, however, that Irwin was a young-earth creationist, because “He certainly believed that Noah’s flood was a global event and occurred around 5,000 years ago.”  Perhaps Irwin came to this conviction later.






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