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People keep telling me to stop obsessing about world affairs, politics, the slow roll in neighbouring America towards calamitous constitutional crisis – or is it already on? – and watch some mindless TV instead, pick up a hobby, maybe.

At what point are you too plugged in? When can you know too much? Is there such a thing as too much context, too much perspective? Does that depend upon whether you’re in a position to affect outcomes, absent which you’re just torturing yourself, or is it better to know anyway, a grain of dust in a whirlwind, but a thinking grain of dust that at least has the dignity of having tried to understand?

If an asteroid was hurtling in from space, its impact and the subsequent mass extinction event utterly inevitable, would you want to know? Would you be inclined to check in now and again on the seismic situation at the Yellowstone supervolcano, like I do?

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

Current threat level: Normal! Yay!

Is there any point to getting all worked up about China annexing the South China Sea, or Trump pulling out of the INF Treaty, or Iran’s next move in the Gulf?

Maybe I’d be better advised to concentrate more on improving my own health and well-being? Can someone of my training and inclination even attain well-being by going off the grid, when the hideous state of not knowing is what drives me ’round the bend? People have been telling me all my life, if you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it, and I’ve always thought no, it’s when I can’t do anything about it that I start to worry, if I could do something I wouldn’t sit here and fret, I’d do it.

This came up the other day at lunch, and for some reason, my brain being the weird and wonderful thing that it is, I thought about Michael Collins. Perhaps, I thought, I should try to be more like Michael Collins. There was a guy who could handle the Big Picture without going into a tailspin.

Younger readers might not know who that is, but everyone of my generation knew Michael Collins, Command Module Pilot on the Apollo 11 mission. Collins, Armstrong, and Aldrin, as familiar as John, Paul, George and Ringo. Collins was the guy who didn’t get to go down to the Moon. Studies had shown that the most efficient way to land someone on the Lunar surface was the orbiter/lander rendezvous scenario, meaning there would be no direct descent and ascent from the Sea of Tranquility by the whole spaceship; instead, a “Lunar Excursion Module” would be dropped to the surface from orbit, rather like a yacht might dispatch a small motor launch to shore with a couple of guys on board to have a look around. Rendezvous in Lunar orbit, though, is tricky stuff, and the orbiter/lander system thus required somebody to hang out in the Command Module when the guys went down to the surface, and wait to manage his part of the docking procedure when they came back, so they could all go home.

So Collins stayed behind. I remember, at the time, my Dad telling me that while he was alone, and on the far side of the Moon, Michael Collins would be the most isolated human being who ever lived, invisible from here, beyond reach of terrestrial radio communication, just cruising along in solitude waiting to pop out into view again. When he did, he’d be the first person ever to see Earthrise by himself, all alone, just him in a technological bubble of air 240,000 odd miles away from the many billions who were all, somehow, clumped together on that little ball out the window. Surely, nobody anywhere ever attained a more Olympian perspective on life, the Universe, and what it all might mean, than he would at that moment.

Up there, waiting patiently, he’d go around and around until the rest of the crew returned, and if anything went wrong down there, there was nothing he could do about it. Not that such was at all likely. The upper stage of the LEM had a “hypergolic” motor, meaning a chemical reaction between the fuel and an oxidizer automatically caused it to light. Open a valve, let ’em mix, and you’re off. It wasn’t like Neil Armstrong was going to turn a key down there and listen to the starter motor grind while it dawned on him that the battery was dead. The odds of it not working were slim to none, really. Still…if they couldn’t get that thing to go, Collins would just have to leave them there. There was nothing he could do about it.

Now if that’s me up there, all by my lonesome, I’m simultaneously overawed by the implications of my solitary perch in orbit above the Moon, looking down on the entire Earth, which would have seemed about the same size as a nickel held at arm’s length, and worried sick about the boys down on the surface. What if one of them tore a hole in his suit? What if the dust was way deeper than we thought? I’d be wondering whether, if they couldn’t return, it would be ignoble to come home with two empty seats in the Command Module, and better, more fitting, to simply stay put and die along with them, high above in orbit, together to the end. I’d be thinking about how terrifyingly small and fragile my home world seemed, hanging there in the void, and the contemplation of all of history’s unremitting strife, the empires that rose and fell, all the millions who fought and died young, all the useless wasted energy now expended in assembling rival nuclear arsenals that would blow the whole joint to hell, leaving no winners behind, all of it, would have consumed me with sadness.

Was Michael Collins similarly moved? You bet your ass he most certainly was not. He was a test pilot by training and temperament. Test pilots are dispassionate like robots, they have procedures to follow, readings to take, telemetry to relay. As he sailed over the craters on the far side of the Moon, only the fourth person to ever clap eyes on them, he thought about the job at hand and didn’t waste time rubbernecking out the window. He was busy. He wasn’t lonely, he wasn’t sad, and he sure as shit wasn’t worried sick. The boys were going to be fine. The motor would light. They’d make their rendezvous, do a controlled burn for home, and in a couple of days that would be that. Speculative anxiety was for the dummies who hadn’t thought of every possible scenario and gamed out every possible solution, and he and his colleagues in the Apollo program were most emphatically not those guys.

That would be a good way to be, I guess.

It just ain’t me.


Anyway, here’s to Michael Collins, to my mind the real hero of the Apollo 11 mission, even if he thought his time alone on the far side of the Moon was just a predictable part of another day of being a test pilot/astronaut. Maybe, if I try hard enough, I can be just a little bit like him.

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