Piece of Apollo history on display from astronaut’s family

The Ambassador of Exploration Award recognizes the sacrifices and dedication of the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury astronauts. Each astronaut or their surviving families will be presented a lunar sample, part of the 842 pounds of moon rocks and soil returned during the six lunar expeditions from 1969 to 1972. (NASA image)

BRADENTON, Fla. – Fifty years after the Apollo 15 crew visited the moon, members of the family of astronaut Jim Irwin, the lunar module pilot who also drove the lunar rover, unveiled his NASA Ambassador of Exploration Award at The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature.

The award, which includes a lunar sample, encased in clear plastic-like protection, went on display Wednesday at The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, 201 10th St. W. in Bradenton.

Were it not for stringent security rules, the award and moon sample might have instead gone to the James I. Irwin Charter School in Colorado Springs more than a decade ago, said family members, four of whom now live in the Bradenton-Sarasota area.

The school was unable to satisfy security requirements, and “it fell by the wayside,” Irwin’s daughter, Joy Irwin Schtakleff said.

However, when the family approached The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, they “jumped on it like white on rice, like a cat on a mouse,” said Mary Ellen Irwin-Vickers, widow of Jim Irwin.

NASA and The Bishop did everything possible to make displaying the moon sample and award a reality on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 15 mission, July 26-Aug. 7, 1971, Joy Irwin Schtakleff said. “It’s such a blessing for us to be here.”

The Apollo 15 mission was notable for being the first mission that a rover was used to explore another world and for the discovery of the Genesis Rock, thought to have its origins in the early days of the creation of the moon, said Hillary Spencer, chief executive officer of The Bishop.

“We are incredibly grateful and honored that the family of Col. Irwin specifically chose The Bishop to display this significant piece of history,” said Matthew D. Woodside, chief curator and director of exhibitions.

“This year, we’ve all been following the journey of Mars Rover Perseverance as it traverses the Red Planet and is beginning the process of collecting Martian samples. Exploring Mars today would not be possible if it weren’t for previous expeditions led by pioneers like Jim Irwin, who landed the Apollo 15 lunar module on the moon and then traversed it with the lunar rover,” Woodside said.

The NASA Ambassador of Exploration Award is an especially good fit for The Bishop with its all-digital planetarium exhibition.

Jill Irwin Christensen said her father applied three times for the astronaut program before being accepted.

“He was right there at the age limit. It was God’s design that he got in,” Christensen said. “It was an amazing ride. He felt God’s presence on the moon. Every time he whispered a prayer the response was immediate.”

Irwin returned from the mission a born-again Christian, resigned from the NASA program in 1972, and created the High Flight Foundation, an interdenominational evangelical organization based in Bradenton. He spent the rest of his life in Christian pursuits. He died of a heart attack in 1991 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mary Ellen Irwin-Vickers said her time as an astronaut’s wife was very stressful.

“You had to look and act a certain way. It was hard on the kids to walk in their father’s shadow,” she said of the constant media attention.

The Irwins didn’t have a television at the time of the Apollo 15 mission. “It messes up your mind if you don’t get out in nature,” Mary Ellen said.

The family did borrow a TV, however, and was able to watch the mission unfold. In addition to Jim Irwin, other members of the Apollo 15 crew included commander David R. Scott and command module pilot Alfred M. Worden.

Jim Irwin II said he was “watching dad” during the mission while his young sisters watched cartoons.

While the family wasn’t able to go along on the mission, Jim Irwin brought along impressions of his wife and children’s fingerprints that he left next to his footprint on the lunar surface.

Growing up in an astronaut family, and around other families in the space program, “mom never displayed any fear to us,” Joy Irwin Schtakleff said.

Mary Ellen Irwin-Vickers attributed the calm she was able to convey to her children to her deep faith.

“I was kneeling by the window and praying, and I could see how bright the moon was. I remember thanking God for bringing him safely. No, I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “Normal doesn’t exist except on your dryer.”

After Jim Irwin’s space days were over, the couple would often speak to groups about the moon mission and Mary Ellen carried a replica of the Genesis Rock in her pocketbook, which she displayed Wednesday at The Bishop.

Between 1969 and 1972, American astronauts brought home 842 pounds of rocks and soil samples from the moon.

Irwin’s family and other Gemini, Mercury and Apollo astronauts were given the NASA Ambassador Awards in 2004. Lunar samples remain the property of NASA, but the space agency gives permission to families to display them in museums or other educational facilities to inspire new generations of space explorers.