Michael Collins, most famous as the third man in the Apollo 11 crew along with Armstrong and Aldrin, is a very gifted writer. This account of his time as an astronaut – six years and two space flights, Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 – was a joy to read. Collins seems very down-to-earth and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Lots of good humor and great storytelling here, along with some very candid impressions and recollections of his fellow astronauts, the training process, and the events of his two space missions.
As I am realizing happens with most men who achieve “greatness,” Collins didn’t set out to particularly do any “great” thing, much less go to the moon. Rather, he was an intelligent, capable individual who took opportunities as they came. Collins went first to West Point, then into the Air Force as a pilot, then an experimental test pilot, and finally to the astronaut corps. Even his assignment to Apollo 11 was somewhat of a fluke; he was originally slated to fly Apollo 8 (which admittedly would have also been a pretty big deal) but had to have neck surgery and was bumped to 11.
There are some funny stories about the astronaut jungle and desert survival training, ostensibly required in case of a landing in some remote area. Most of the astronauts laughed off this chance; however contingency planning was a hallmark of NASA in these early days. Much of it was never needed, but Collins agrees it was time and money well spent. For example, the consideration of using the LM as survival craft was already well documented prior to Apollo 13.
Surprisingly for a pressure suit expert, and as a Gemini EVA veteran, Collins admits to some claustrophobia during certain suit tests, but of course never reported it for fear of being grounded. Everything ended up just fine during his EVA, but it made me wonder … what other dangerous conditions did other astronauts conceal for fear of losing their chance at glory? (This is one of those process-breaking things that occur when humans get involved … we are not always dispassionate creatures of logic.)
During a down moment as CAPCOM for Apollo 8, Collins relayed a question from his son to the crew enroute to the moon: “Who’s driving, is it Mr. Borman?” Answer: “Nope, Isaac Newton is driving now.” It really is incredible how Apollo was shot to the moon – 250,000 miles and three days out, towards a spot ~40 deg away from the moon’s position at launch – and then hitting within 60 miles or so.
As also reported in “First Man”, the Apollo 11 crew didn’t seem to be very close or communicate much beyond the technical. Collins also reports the same “distance” with John Young during Gemini 10. Maybe there was just so much going on that there was little time or brainspace to spare for non-technical matters?
The crew knew that Apollo 11 was going to be a big deal and expected a certain amount of fanfare upon their return, but none of them could have predicted what the never-ending fame (including being asked “What was it really like up there?” approximately one million times) would actually be like. For three introverted engineers, dealing with fame was not always enjoyable. Furthermore, nothing in life ever really seemed to come close to the challenge or fulfillment that came from making the moon shot. I guess that nothing on earth can really compare once you’ve already done the impossible. But I suppose that, among all hardships, this is not the most terrible one to experience. Also, it really put some problems in perspective – hard to be terribly concerned with issues where lives are not on the line, and also some of planet Earth’s squabbles and feuds seem so small when you can view the whole Earth as a tiny ball outside a single viewport of your spacecraft. On the other hand, even the great honors of the Earth that were bestowed on the crew don’t seem like much — “through it all, the earth continues to turn on its axis …. I am less impressed by my own disturbance to that serene motion, or by that of my fellow man.”
The crew also returned to a pivotal moment in the future of manned space flight, as the voices in opposition to the vast sums being spent on such endeavors where becoming loud indeed. Collins’ book was published in 1974 and it is clear he and NASA were at least by then very much on the defensive. I think he and many in Apollo would be surprised that we still as of 2017 haven’t sent a man to Mars yet — it seemed like the next logical step.
Nearly fifty years too late, but let me say, “Great job, Mike!” And also to the other astronauts and literally thousands of others who made it all happen. Apollo is a story which will inspire humanity through the ages.