James Benson Irwin

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James Benson Irwin

In 1971, during the U.S. Apollo 15 space mission, James Irwin (1930-1991) became the eighth person to walk on the moon. During the first-ever use of the lunar roving vehicle, or "moon buggy," he and mission commander David Scott found a four-billion-year-old rock. Irwin experienced the lunar mission as a religious awakening and later founded an evangelical Christian religious organization.

James Irwin was born and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father worked as a steamfitter at the Carnegie Museums, running the power plant. "Some of my earliest memories are of waiting for Dad in this tremendous place," Irwin wrote in his autobiography To Rule the Night. His lifelong fascination with flying machines began before second grade when a neighbor gave him a model plane. His interest grew when his father would take him to a nearby airport to watch planes take off and land.

When Irwin was eleven years old, the family moved to Florida, but his father could not find work, and he was forced to return to Pittsburgh and his old job. "I took over the role of the man in the house," Irwin said in his book. "It was a very maturing experience for me." When was in the sixth grade, Irwin felt drawn to go inside a Baptist church; he became a convert and remained religious through the rest of his life.

Irwin spent his junior high and high school years in Salt Lake City. After graduation, he entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Upon graduating from the academy in 1951, Irwin, who was still interested in becoming a pilot, jumped at the chance to join the U.S. Air Force. He finally learned to fly at an airbase in Hondo, Texas. The base had not seen service since World War II and had been used as a chicken farm. "They still had chicken wire up," Irwin wrote in his book, "and there were feathers and droppings all over the place. It was the most primitive living I had seen."

Irwin learned so quickly that he soon found the T-6 training planes not enough of a challenge. He earned his Air Force pilot wings with thoughts of leaving the service and going to work for an airline. However, when he was assigned to a base in Yuma, Arizona, he encountered his first P-51 fighter plane. "Those 51s were the hottest planes I had ever seen in my life," he later wrote. "From that point on, I found myself living to fly."

During this time, he married a Catholic woman named Mary Etta despite the objections of his family. Soon, their religious differences led to a divorce.

Seriously committed to flying, Irwin decided to become a test pilot. To do that he would have to attend graduate school, so he entered the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He also applied to the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in California and was accepted. But a new rule preventing Air Force personnel from attending two schools at once caused him to be assigned instead to Dayton, Ohio, where he helped to design missiles. He kept up his flight status by becoming a flight instructor. Irwin got a master's degree in aeronautical and instrumentation engineering in 1957. He married his second wife, a model named Mary Ellen Monroe. They soon had a baby girl named Joy.

By this time, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had started sending people into space, and Irwin wanted to be an astronaut. But NASA was accepting only test pilots. Finally, in 1960, Irwin was admitted into the test pilot school at Edwards. While he was training at Edwards, his second child was born, a girl named Jill. After graduating from pilot school, Irwin decided to stay on at Edwards as a test pilot. He was immediately assigned to a top-secret mission to test what was to be the highest flying, fastest plane ever built.

Just when it appeared that his career was finally going to take off, a student pilot he was training crashed the plane they were flying. They both survived, but Irwin suffered compound fractures, amnesia, and nearly lost a leg. He was grounded for many months, and became so discouraged that he began to study to become a lawyer.

Irwin was back in the air by 1962, however, and gunning for the astronaut corps. In 1963, he applied to be an astronaut but was turned down. Also that year, he and his wife had a son, James, followed by another daughter, Jan, in 1964. Later they adopted a fifth child, Joe. In 1964, Irwin tried again for the astronaut corps, and he was again turned down.

In 1966, the year he turned 36, the age limit for astronaut candidates, he was finally accepted in the astronaut program. He was put in charge of the testing program for the lunar landing module that was being built. "This entire experiment was in many ways the most rewarding experience I ever had," he recalled in his book. "In a personal way, it was almost more rewarding than the trip to the moon."

After a year and a half of training, Irwin, David Scott, and Alfred Worden were assigned to fly Apollo 15. The launch and the three-day journey to the moon went without a hitch. On July 30, 1971, Irwin piloted Apollo 15's lunar module, Falcon, touching down in a plain near the moon's Apennine mountain range.

After a good night's sleep, Irwin and Scott ventured outside. For the first time in history, they deployed a four-wheeled lunar roving vehicle, or "moon buggy," and it took them farther from their ship than any previous lunar astronauts had ventured. Aside from a brief scare when the vehicle slid away from them as they worked beside it on a steep slope, the machine did its job well. It helped the astronauts make one of the most exciting discoveries of the Apollo program—a rock, more than four billion years old, that the media dubbed the Genesis Rock. The mission also set an endurance record for time spent on the moon.

During his 67 hours on the moon, 19 of which were spent outside the ship in three separate excursions, Irwin experienced a religious reawakening, saying he felt the presence and power of God in a new way. He retired from NASA in 1972 and founded the High Flight Foundation, an interdenominational religious organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "Before the flight, I was really not a religious man," Irwin explained in his autobiography. "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."

In the early 1980s, Irwin mounted annual expeditions to Mount Ararat in Turkey in search of Noah's Ark. In 1982, he made it to the mountaintop but fell and was injured. The next year, he flew a plane over the summit to look for remains of the ark, but he never found any. Irwin had a history of heart problems and succumbed to a heart attack on August 8, 1991. He was the first of the moon walkers to die.


Chaikin, Andrew, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, Penguin Books, 1994.

Irwin, James and William A. Emerson, Jr., To Rule the Night A. J. Holman Company, 1973.


Houston Chronicle, August 10, 1991.

New York Times, August 10, 1991.

Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, Australia), December 21, 1997.


"Apollo 15 Crew Information," Apollo Lunar Surface Journal,http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/alsj/a15/a15.crew.html (November 15, 2001).

"Astronaut Bio: James Irwin.," Web site of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/irwinjb.html (November 15, 2001).

"James Irwin," Astronaut Hall of Fame,http://www.astronauts.org/astronauts/irwin.htm (November 13, 2001). □

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