How the Late Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins Made It to the Moon
Michael Collins, the American astronaut who flew the Apollo 11 Columbia command module around the moon by himself while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, passed away on April 28, 2021 at age 90, after battling cancer.
While Armstrong and Aldrin were the first to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969, it was Collins who ensured the Apollo 11 mission was a success. As the mission’s command module pilot, Collins was alone in the Columbia for more than 21 hours running system checks, recording observations, and communicating with Mission Control. When it was time to head back to Earth, Collins maneuvered the Columbia to make sure it docked safely with the lunar module Eagle with his colleagues inside.
Apollo 11 wasn’t the first time Collins had gone to space. The West Point graduate and Air Force Major General was the pilot on Gemini 10, a mission to test rendezvous and docking procedures. On that voyage, Collins became the first human to visit another spacecraft while in orbit.
After the Apollo 11 mission, Collins retired as an astronaut and became the director of the National Air and Space Museum in 1971. He oversaw the construction of the massive museum on the National Mall, which is now one of the most visited in the world. He also graduated from Harvard Business School, became vice-president of an aerospace firm, and authored several books, including Carrying the Fire, his memoir about being in the space program.
In July 2019, Popular Mechanics spoke with Collins about the Apollo 11 mission, the future of human space exploration, and going to Mars. To honor him, Pop Mech is reprinting the article in its entirety. May he rest in peace.
Popular Mechanics: What was your path to becoming part of the Apollo 11 mission?
Michael Collins: It wasn’t like all of sudden I was lying on my back one night looking up into the night sky and, bingo, next thing you know I was on the moon. It was a very long, stair step system of progression. I kept getting promoted little by little by little. A lot of patience. When it was all through, I had gone from being a West Point cadet to being an apprentice pilot in the Air Force to being a test pilot and, then, a NASA astronaut. Each one of those is a tiny little increment of improvement.
➡ You think space is badass. So do we. Let’s nerd out over it together.
PM: While Armstrong and Aldrin were walking the lunar surface, you were orbiting the moon by yourself for 21 hours including venturing to the far side of the moon and being completely cut off from communications with Houston for nearly an hour and a half. Was there any moment on the mission when you felt in danger?
MC: Well, I remember returning to Earth and going into quarantine. They locked us up for two weeks when we got back because they were worried we had brought dangerous pathogens back from the moon. When we were being debriefed… I got the question, ‘how did it feel to be the loneliest human being in the history of our lonely planet on the lonely side of the lonely moon?’
You know what was on my mind when he asked me that? White mice. We were locked up in these big fancy series of rooms. But there was the white mice room. If the white mice died, we were in deep trouble [because it meant that we had brought back a deadly pathogen].
So, when they were asking about me being lonely, I kept thinking ‘what the hell are they talking about?’ I was worried about those white mice at the time, worried about something sensible. Neil, Buzz, and I went to the moon and back. Was it a success or a failure? It all depended on those white mice.
PM: What do you think is the next step in human space exploration?
MC: I always joke that NASA sent me to the wrong planet. I think NASA should be renamed NAMA, the National Aeronautics and Mars Administration. Mars is the one I think we ought to have an eye on.
PM: Why do you think we should be going to Mars?
MC: If we really want to go to and study space, we should sail right by the close-up moon and head to Mars. It’s the closest thing to a sister planet we have. We don’t want to live with a lid over our heads. Some primitive tribes have always been happy living in their secluded valley. But there’s a whole bunch of us who want to travel, to touch, see, and understand.
That’s what Mars is to me. I look at the night sky and see all of these miraculous, marvelous things. I think humankind ought to lift that lid and get going. Move outward bound. That was the terminology that I always found that most closely came to describing my feelings. It was Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote about the concept ‘Outward Bound’ in his poems. The concept is very important to me and I think it ought to be important to humankind. That’s why I want to go to Mars.
PM: As soon as we got to the moon in July 1969, attention turned to getting humans to Mars. In fact, Wernher von Braun proposed a manned mission to Mars to be completed by the early 1980s. Why do you think, 50 years later, we still haven’t gotten to the red planet yet?
MC: It’s very complex. Going to Mars makes Apollo look like child’s play. The orbits of Earth and Mars are both gigantic ellipses. The first thing is to get them in proper alignment. If you make a Hohmann Transfer, which is the most economical fuel transfer that can be made in a trajectory, it will still take about six months to get there.
However, when you land, you can’t turn around and come home because now the planets are in exactly wrong alignment. That means waiting on [Mars’s] surface for close to a year before they are back in proper alignment to get home. So, we are talking a two year round trip. And, during that period, you are on your own. Mission Control can give advice and instruction, but can’t really help you up there. Plus, you’ll have to withstand all the [space] radiation that your body maybe getting.
How well we can protect against space radiation is still not really well known. Also, on a two year flight, you’d possibly have all kinds of crew compatibility issues that we didn’t have on a simple eight day voyage to the moon and back. So, the challenges are immense. That’s why we’ve been reluctant.
PM: You’ve said in previous interviews that the goal of visiting Mars should be exploration as opposed to planting the American flag. Do you think the U.S. needs to remain the leader in space exploration? Or do you think this new generation of human space exploration should be more global in partnership?
I’m very proud that the first flag on the moon was an American one. However, I will contradict that by saying that after the flight of Apollo 11, the three of us—Neil, Buzz, and I—were honored to make a trip around the world. I thought everywhere we went, they would say ‘You Americans finally did it.’ Instead, they said ‘WE did it.’
The human race had left our home planet and everyone wanted to be part of that. Even though they weren’t Americans, they felt they were a vital part of it and basked in that sunshine. I thought that was wonderful.
The idea of bringing different countries and people together to plan and execute a voyage to Mars would override the pride I would get if it was simply an American venture.
PM: [In March 2019, then Vice President] Mike Pence declared that American astronauts will be back walking on the moon by 2024. Do you think it’s important for us to go back to the lunar surface?
MC: Personally, I don’t think the moon is that important to us anymore. Sure, someday soon we or another nation will be able to starting mining the Moon for all its underground treasures, it’s chemical elements that are rare here on Earth. That mining operation will be of benefit to us Earthlings. My friend Neil Armstrong, whom I thought was a much better engineer than I am, thought going back to the moon would help to fill in some of our knowledge gaps before we set sail for Mars.
But, for exploration purposes, I’d rather just bypass the moon and go directly to Mars. I believe in what I call the “John F. Kennedy mission,” which is the purity of a very simple statement. ‘We choose to go… not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.’
PM: What about the thought of using the moon as a base and stop off point for the voyage to Mars?
MC: You are talking about the ‘Lunar Gateway.’ I like the direct approach of just going to Mars than added complications a gateway brings with it. Those intermediate steps that will cost us more and delay us more.
PM: What advice would you give astronauts today?
MC: The last NASA selection process picked 12 people from over 1800 applicants. So, all of these people are so qualified. I’d tell them that even if you are not on a mission to Mars, none of it is wasted time. They are building up a repertoire of education and information that would be very useful right here on this little dinky planet of ours.
PM: Of course, during the Apollo era, America was engaged in a competitive ‘space race’ with the Soviet Union. Today, there’s still competition among nations for achievements in space. Do you think that type of competition, even engaging in a ‘space race,’ helps innovation or hinders it?
MC: That’s a good question. I don’t know. The three people I can recall studying were the German [Hermann] Oberth, Goddard the American, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Soviet. Clearly, the Soviet Union had the background, know-how, and brains though their political system was inferior to ours in terms of organizing those brains. We went about our way, focusing on our business like Kennedy asked us. So, it certainly didn’t hinder us, but the rest of the world was also on the same path. We just got there first.
PM: Recently, private companies have begun to partner with the federal government to usher in a new era of space exploration. Do you think privatizing space exploration is the best way forward?
MC: When it comes to putting private money into the pot, I say fine… the more the merrier. To me, it’s not a question of substituting private funds with publicly appropriated funds. It’s the sum of the two that will provide a bigger number and make things quicker than going totally private or totally federal. I welcome people like Bezos and Musk getting involved.
I know Bezos a little bit, served on a panel with him. A big admirer of him. But I disagree with him when it comes to exploration. He fundamentally says that this Earth of ours…we are doing so many bad things to it that he wants to take manufacturing and move it to the moon. Then, we will have a little garden here where we will be much purer in our endeavors and take care of our planet. I like the concept of a garden, but I don’t want to import my car from the moon.
PM: What’s something you learned on the Apollo 11 mission, a lesson, that you’ve taken with you for the rest of your life?
MC: It’s not a thing I learned so much as a vision. I went to the moon, which was a quarter of a million miles away, and saw it up close. We had to rotate like a chicken on a barbecue stick in order to make sure the temperatures were even around the periphery of our vehicle. When we rolled out of that maneuver, bingo, there was the moon. Woah. It filled our window with its gigantic presence. Three dimensional, belly bulging out towards us, sunlight cascading around the rim, the dark was darker, the light was lighter. It was a magnificent spectacle.
Having said that, it wasn’t nothing compared to the Earth. That’s what I brought back, the memory of tiny little Earth. As [Apollo 8 astronaut] Bill Anders always points out, if you put your thumbnail in front of [Earth], you can totally obscure it. But I found every time I removed my thumb, the Earth popped back into my view. It wanted to be seen. It was the whole show. It was my home, everything I knew. A tiny little thing with blue skies. White clouds with a smear of rust color we call continents.
What was startling to me was that it somehow projected an image of fragility. What I learned from my trip to the moon and back was that our own planet is a fragile little thing. And I don’t think we are treating its fragility properly.
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Published at Wed, 28 Apr 2021 18:18:00 +0000
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