The death of Michael Collins was announced today. He was 90. Neil Armstrong went in 2012, so that leaves only Buzz Aldrin from what must at one time have been the most famous trio on earth, back 52 years ago, when humankind first set foot on the Moon. It saddens me to imagine that there might be young people today who’ve never heard of Apollo 11, or learned anything about the Space Race really, which for me and mine was the defining adventure of the age. I hope that isn’t true. I bet it is, though. I bet people are scrolling through their Twitter feeds and asking themselves “who’s Michael Collins?”.
Well, Michael Collins was one of the chosen few from a caste of elite military test pilots that served as the farm team for Project Apollo, the effort to put an astronaut on the Lunar surface before 1970, in fulfillment of the promise made by JFK before his assassination turned the effort into something of a sacred quest to honour the memory of the dead hero. It was part scientific exploration, and part urgent mission to get to the Moon before the Soviets, thus demonstrating to the world the superiority of capitalism, Western Civilization, the American Way of Life, and all of the things in which we used to believe so fervently back at the height of the Cold War (and the youngsters ask “what’s the Cold War?”).
It was the geopolitical competition aspect that kept the money taps open. Congress would never have provided the sustained, multi-year, multi-kabillion dollar funding needed for a mere science project. Yet it was the science that enthralled millions of geeks and nerds like me, many of us just little kids who’d been following the space program for essentially our entire lives, as Project Mercury gave way to Gemini, and then Apollo, making astonishing technological progress in a very short time. When Apollo 11 lifted off, Moon-bound, in July of 1969, it was barely more than eight short years since Kennedy had set the goal, and thrown down the gauntlet to the Soviets. Pause on that for a second. These days, we can’t build a subway stop in eight years. It takes us more than eight years to secure the funding and clear the bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of replacing a dangerously crumbling bridge. Truly, it beggars belief. The audacity of it. Kennedy was writing a horrendous cheque that NASA was going to have to cash, and the fact was that at that point they not only lacked the technology to do what the President had just commanded, they lacked the means to invent the technology. They literally had no idea how to do it. The sheer size of the rocket required; the computers needed; the method for ferrying astronauts to and from the surface of the Moon; the techniques for the various necessary rendezvous between vehicles moving in airless space; all of that, and a million things more, would have to be thought out, conceptualized, and then made real. So they did. By 1969. Relying on a level of technology that you and I wouldn’t trust to navigate us to the shopping mall, with computers that were so laughably limited in capability that you wonder how they had the nerve to even try it. Look at this comparison that I just found:
Put simply, the iPhone 6’s clock is 32,600 times faster than the best Apollo era computers and could perform instructions 120,000,000 times faster. You wouldn’t be wrong in saying an iPhone could be used to guide 120,000,000 Apollo era spacecraft to the moon, all at the same time.
That was the iPhone 6. God only knows the margin of superiority enjoyed by the iPhone 12. Here’s a picture of the Apollo guidance computer:
The calculator app on your phone is far more advanced. No matter. What they had was good enough. They were going.
Collins had already distinguished himself, both as a pilot and as an astronaut in the Gemini program, and was judged to have the peculiar qualities needed for a special role in the Apollo 11 mission: Command Module Pilot. This meant that it would be his job to pull off the docking maneuvers necessary both to extract the lunar lander from its secure storage in the rocket’s mission bay, and then rendezvous with the ascent stage of the lunar lander when it returned from the Moon’s surface, bringing the astronauts back so they could all go home. This was delicate stuff that required nerves of steel. The NASA administrators must also have sensed in Collins a certain calm self-possession, an equanimity and unflappability that would see him through in the crunch, because his was the singular and less glorious task of being left behind in orbit while Aldrin and Armstrong descended to hog the limelight of being the first men on the Moon. While they were down there making footprints and planting flags, he’d be by himself, travelling at about 3,700 MPH up about 60 miles off the surface, just close enough to catch a flash or two of reflected light from the lander as he passed over, with plenty of time to think, and, if he was the fretful sort, to worry himself to pieces about what came next.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my father explaining to me that because Collins was alone up there, he would, for part of each orbit, be the most isolated human being who ever lived. As his little capsule transitioned to the far side of the moon, all radio contact with home would be lost, and he wouldn’t be able to see the Earth. Given the current phase of the Moon, the lunar surface would be too dark to make anything out. All he’d see is the vast gulf of space, its billions of stars shining brilliantly in the utter silence, no longer dimmed and twinkling from the atmospheric interference we experience down here. It would be literally awesome. Perhaps overwhelming. Certainly lonely. And fraught with unique responsibility. That, said my Dad, made his job probably the hardest one in the mission, and also potentially the most emotionally devastating. If something went wrong down there, and the ascent stage failed, or went off course, there wasn’t much that Collins would be able to do about it. If the ascending capsule veered wildly in the wrong direction, he might still be able to intercept it and effect the rendezvous (though probably not), and he had contingency plans to do just that, but if the rocket didn’t light down there, that was it. The command module had no capacity to go down and retrieve them. He’d have to leave them there. Probably, he’d stick around until their oxygen ran out, and it was all over, and then he’d head home alone, in which event, he wrote later, he knew he’d be marked for life. The prospect might be enough to rattle your average Joe, as he sat in silence, traversing the far side of the Moon.
As it happened, though, not Collins, not much anyway. He had tasks to perform, checklists to go through, and as a test pilot he was focussed on crossing every “t” and dotting every “i”. The darkness, silence, and vista of infinite stars on the far side was indeed awesome, and he liked the view very much. He didn’t mind being alone while he took it all in. He loved the repeated experience of emerging back into the brilliant sunlight, and seeing Earthrise, which was a transcendent experience, beautiful beyond description. As to the boys not coming back, Collins knew well the science, had calculated the odds, and was confident, if still naturally and unavoidably anxious. It was hard to completely suppress the dread of something going wrong (when you’re a test pilot and an astronaut, you know that something can always go wrong), but he knew there was a virtual zero chance that the ascent stage rocket wouldn’t light; it was of the “hypergolic” variety, meaning that ignition was guaranteed when two chemicals were mixed. All you had to do was open a valve, and off you went. As to the ascent stage veering off course, perhaps he consoled himself with the thought that Armstrong would be at the controls. Neil had already had to take over when the computers crapped out in the descent phase, and handled the manual piloting with the aplomb that was only to be expected from a fellow like him. He’d make sure the thing went in the right direction, if anyone could. When it came time to rendezvous, well, Collins knew exactly how to do his part. He wasn’t about to mess it up, was he? I doubt he worried much about his own role in executing the maneuvers.
Nothing was going wrong. All was well. He waited, and generally enjoyed himself. He didn’t get to walk on the Moon, but he understood the importance of his own role, and what the public thought didn’t much concern him. His community would know.
When the mission returned, Aldrin and Armstrong did indeed hog most of the glory, and Collins never gave the slightest sign it bothered him, even when it became customary to refer to him as “the forgotten astronaut”. That was nonsense. Plenty remembered him – not only everybody that mattered, but lots of the rest of us out here among the gawking masses, some of whom had long ago had it all explained to them by their dads.