Michael Collins: “Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys”

I’ve been home from my own planetary adventure for about a half a day now. It was just halfway across this one planet and not 250,000 miles to a whole different celestial body, so maybe it wasn’t quite the same achievement as Apollo 11. But on the other hand, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were only away for half as long as I was. Let’s just agree that all four of us are true American hero explorers and not split hairs over whose achievements were more daring than whose, okay?

Last night I got down my copy of “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys,” Michael Collins’ first-person account of Apollo 11. It’s one of the most marvelous books about the space program ever written. It was published shortly after the landings and stays firmly in the orbit of the events of July 16-24 1969 (the training, the engineering, and the mission itself), but also provides important context and background.

As pilot of the command module, Collins was no idle spectator to the moment when Armstrong and Aldrin became the first to step foot on the Moon. Firstly, because his role was no less important than that of the two astronauts who undocked from the command module and set off for the Sea of Tranquility. Secondly…because he was on the wrong side of the Moon at the time. Ironically enough, he was closer to the event than any other man or woman…but he couldn’t even listen to the radio chatter, let alone watch it live on video.

In the end, though, we should never forget that three men planted that flag on the lunar surface, not two. I’ve OCRed a few excerpts:

Meanwhile, the command module is purring along in grand shape. I have turned the lights up bright, and the cockpit reflects a cheeriness which I want very much to share. My concerns are exterior ones, having to do with the vicissitudes of my two friends on the moon and their uncertain return path to me, but inside, all is well, as this familiar machine and I circle and watch and wait. I have removed the center couch and stored it underneath the left one, and this gives the place an entirely different aspect. It opens up a central aisle between the main instrument panel and the lower equipment bay, a pathway which allows me to zip from upper hatch window to lower sextant and return. The main reason for removing the couch is to provide adequate access for Neil and Buzz to enter the command module through the side hatch, in the event that the probe and drogue mechanism cannot be cleared from the tunnel. If suchj is the case, we would habve to open the hatch to the vacuum of space, and Neil and Buzz would have to make an extravehicular transfer from the LM, dragging their rock boxes behind then. All three of us would be in bulky pressurized suits, requiring a tremendous amount of space and a wide path into the lower equipment bay. In addition to providing more room, these preparations give me the feeling of being proprietor of a small resortt hotel, about to receive the onrush of skiers coming in out of the cold. Everything is prepared for them; it is a happy place, and I couldn’t make them more welcome unless I had a fireplace.

I know from pre-flight questions that I will be described as a lonely man (“Not since Adam has any man experienced such loneliness”), and I guess that the TV commentators must be reveling in my solitude and deriving all sorts of phony philosophy from it, but I hope not. Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.

I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon. I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side. I feel this powerfully — not as fear or loneliness — but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars — and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void; the moon’s presence is defined solely by the absence of stars. To compare the sensation with something terrestrial, perhaps being alone in a skiff in the middle of the pacific ocean on a pitch-black night would most nearly approximate my situation. In a skiff, one would see bright stars above and black sea below; I see the same stars, minus the twinkling of course, and absolutely nothing below. In each case, time and distance are extremely important factors.

In terms of distance, I am much more remote, but in terms of time, lunar orbit is much closer to civilized conversation than is the mid-Pacific. Though I may be anearly a quarter of a million miles away, I am cut off from human voices for only forty-eight minutes out of each two hours, while the man in the skiff — grazing the very surface of the planet — is not so privileged, or burdened. Of the two quantities, time and distance, time tends to be a much more personal one, so that I feel simultaneously closer to, and farther away from, Houston than I would if I were on some remote spot on earth which would deny me conversation with other humans for months on end.

Houston also has its eye on me, and lets me know it. “Columbia, Houston. We noticed you are maneuvering very close to gimbal lock. I suggest you move back a way. Over.” Gimbal lock, one of the command module pilot’s most familiar enemies, is a condition caused by maneuvering to a direction that prevents the three gyroscopes in the inertial platform from moving freely. To prevent damage to the gyroscopes, the system “freezes,” causing the platform to be rendered useless, until the command module pilot can run through an elaborate procedure to restore the platform and hence regain the vital knowledge of “up-down” and “left-right” which the platform provides. Gimbal lock is a pet peeve among astronauts, especially those of us who flew the Gemini spacecraft, which avoided the problem by providing four gimbals instead of Apollo’s three. We felt that we were being unnecessarily restricted in the maneuvers we could perform because NASA’s Apollo right hand had ignored its Gemini left. Now I can’t resist letting my annoyance show. “How about sending me a fourth gimbal for Christmas?” They don’t know what I am muttering about. “You were unreadable. Say again, please,” but this is no time for sour grapes, so I let it drop. “Disregard.” Houston is chattering away now about waste water dumps, battery charges, and other things they want to make sure I won’t forget as I depart “over the hill” into my own forty-eight-minute universe. In case I have not heard, they also let me know about the plan to go EVA before sleeping. “Sounds good to me,” I say. “Tell them to eat some lunch before they do.” The Jewish mother is in orbit.
Meanwhile, I must get prepared for my second Easter egg hunt, squinting through the sextant in search of the LM below. Again I have no luck, just more indistinguishable craters and no glint of sunlight off metallic skin. “Do you have any topographical cue that might help me out here?” Houston sends up some more vague descriptions of craters, but they’re no help. Also, I can’t even hear the LM this time, which is strange. The pre-flight agreement was that all LM transmissions would be automatically relayed to me; apparently they aren’t doing it. “Houston, Columbia. Could you enable the S-band relay at least one way from Eagle to Columbia so I can hear what’s going on?” “Roger, there’s not much going on at the present time, Columbia. I’ll see what I can do about the relay.” I want to hear what’s going on. “O.K. I haven’t heard a word from those guys, and I thought I’d be hearing them through your S-band relay.” I don’t care so much right now, because they are still about two hours away from depressurizing the LM, but when they get out on the surface, I want to be able to hear them. What will Neil say, for instance? He hasn’t confided any magic first words to me, but I’ll bet he has some. Neil doesn’t waste words, but that doesn’t mean he can’t use them; he nearly always rises to an occasion, and if ever man had anything to say, this is the time. I want to hear him!

Houston confirms that my coolant problem seems to have solved itself, and I pass out of sight with a feeling of confidence in Columbia and a feeling of growing anticipation of what is going on down there in Eagle. The back side is really peaceful this time, with a quality of guaranteed silence that is uniquely satisfying. When I get around on the front side again, I find Neil and Buzz engaged in equipment check-out, and still over an hour from stepping on the surface. Rats! I will probably be on the back side when they get out. Another try at seeing them through my sextant (no luck) and another peaceful back-side pass; then around once more and try to get the radio working. “Reading you loud and clear. How’s it going?” “Roger. The EVA is progressing beautifully. I believe they are setting up the flag now.” The American flag! “Great!” “I guess you are about the only person around that doesn’t have TV coverage on the scene.” “That’s all right, I don’t mind a bit. How is the quality of the TV?” “Oh, it’s beautiful, Mike. It really is.” “Oh gee, that’s great! Is the lighting halfway decent?” “Yes, indeed. They’ve got the flag up now and you can see the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface.” “Beautiful, just beautiful.” Just let things keep going that way, and no surprises, please. Neil and Buzz sound good, with no huffing and puffing to indicate they are overexerting themselves.

But one surprise at least is in store, and a very impressive one at that.

Houston comes on the air, not the slightest bit ruffled, and announces that the President of the United States would like to talk to Neil and Buzz. “That would be an honor,” says Neil, with characteristic dignity. “Go ahead, Mr. President. This is Houston. Out,” says Bruce McCandless, the CAPCOM, as if he instructed Presidents every day. The only clue to how he must feel comes in his use of the word “out,” which we are all taught in telecommunications protocol but which we practically never use. “Out” has a formality and finality that renders its use most unusual. Perhaps it should be reserved for Presidents.

The President’s voice smoothly fills the air waves with the unaccustomed cadence of the speechmaker, trained to convey inspiration, or at least emotion, instead of our usual diet of numbers and reminders. “Neil and Buzz, I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Office at the White House, and this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made … Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquillity to Earth … ” My God, I never thought of all this bringing peace and tranquillity to anyone. As far as I am concerned, this voyage is fraught with hazards for the three of us-and especially two of usand that is about as far as I have gotten in my thinking. Peace and tranquillity indeed; I wish I had time to digest that, and decide in my own mind whether it’s true or not; in the meantime, I am proprietor of this orbiting men’s room and there are other demands on my time.

Neil, however, pauses long enough to give as well as he receives.

“Thank you, Mr. President. It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here, representing not only the United States but men of peace of all nations, and with interest and a curiosity and a vision for the future. It’s an honor for us to be able to participate here today.” The President responds, “And thank you very much, and I look forward-all of us look forward-to seeing you on the Hornet on Thursday.” “I look forward to that very much, sir,” Buzz pipes up, before Houston abruptly cuts off the White House and returns to business as usual, with a long string of numbers for me to copy for future use. My God, the juxtaposition of the incongruous: roll, pitch, and yaw; prayers, peace, and tranquillity. What will it be like if we really carry this off and return to earth in one piece, with our boxes full of rocks and our heads full of new perspectives for the planet? I have a little time to ponder this as I zing off out of sight of the White House and the earth in my proud and solitary vigil.

The next time around, I am more concerned than I have been before. The Hornet, indeed; these guys may never see Columbia, much less the Hornet. “How goes it, anyway?” “Roger, Columbia … the crew of Tranquility Base is back inside … everything went beautifully. Over.”

“Hallelujah!” Well, that’s a big one behind us: no more worrying about crashing through into hidden lava tubes, or becoming exhausted, or the front door sticking open, or the little old ladies using weak glue, or any of that! Whew! Now all we have to do is grab some shuteye, and get the top half of Eagle up here where it belongs; then we can haul ass! Meanwhile, it’s two in the morning in Houston, and it’s been a long day (tougher than yesterday, but perhaps not as tough as tomorrow). It’s time for me to douse the lights and get some sleep. Sleep? Alone by myself? You’d better believe it. These are familiar surroundings, not the bewildering jungle of switches I once regarded with awe, but old friends now, just part of Columbia. As I scurry about, blocking off the windows with metal plates and dousing the lights, I have almost the same feeling I used to have years ago when, as an altar boy, I snuffed the candles one by one at the end of a long service. Come to think of it, with the center couch removed, Columbia’s floor plan is not unlike that of the National Cathedral, where I used to serve. Certainly it is cruciform, with the tunnel up above where the bell tower would be, and the navigation instruments at the altar. The main instrument panels span the north and south transepts, while the nave is where the center couch used to be. If not a miniature cathedral, then at least it is a happy home, and I have no hesitation about leaving its care to God and Houston as I fade away into a comfortable snooze.

When the instant of lift-off does arrive, I am like a nervous bride. I have been flying for seventeen years, by myself and with others; I have skimmed the Greenland ice cap in December and the Mexican border in August; I have circled the earth forty-four times aboard Gemini 10. But I have never sweated out any flight like I am sweating out the LM now. My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter. If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it. Almost better not to have the option I enjoy. Hold it! Buzz is counting down: “9-8-7-6-5- … abort stage … engine arm ascent … proceed … beautiful … thirty-six feet per second up … ” Off they go: their single engine seems to be doing its thing, the thing earthlings have been insisting it could do for half a dozen years, but it’s scary nonetheless. One little hiccup and they are dead men. I hold my breath for the seven minutes it takes them to get into orbit. Their apolune is forty-seven miles and their perilune is ten miles. So far so good. Their lower orbit ensures a satisfactory catch-up rate, and they will be joining me in slightly less than three hours, if all goes well.
The LM is fifteen miles below me now, and some fifty miles behind.

It is overtaking me at the comfortable rate of 120 feet per second. They are studying me with their radar and I am studying them with my sextant. At precisely the right moment, when I am up above them, 27 degrees above the horizon, they make their move, thrusting toward me. “We’re burning,” Neil lets me know, and I congratulate him. “Thata-boy!” We are on a collision course now, or at least we are supposed to be; our trajectories are designed to cross 130 degrees of orbital travel later (in other words, slightly over one third of the way around in our next orbit). I have just passed “over the hill” and the next time the earth pops up into view, I should be parked next to the LM. As we emerge into sunlight on the back side, the LM changes from a blinking light in my sextant to a visible bug, gliding golden and black across the crater fields below. “I see you don’t have any landing gear.” Of course, only the top half, called the ascent stage, of Eagle is returning; the descent stage sits at Tranquility Base for all time, its last (and best) function having been to serve as launch pad. “That’s good,” chortles Neil. “You’re not confused which end to dock with, are you?” Then he adds, “Looks like you are making a high side pass on us, Michael” using fighter-pilot terminology. Buzz sees me too. “O.K., I can see the shape of your vehicle now, Mike.” So close, yet so far away: all that remains is for them to brake to a halt using the correct schedule of range vs. range rate. My solo book tells me that at 2,724 feet out, they should be closing at 19.7 feet per second; at 1,370 feet, 9.8 feet per second, etc. While they are doing this, they must make certain they stay exactly on their prescribed approach path, slipping neither left nor right nor up nor down. John Young and I both know that fuel-guzzling whifferdills result if one is not extremely careful, and this is what concerns me now. The sextant is useless this close in, so I close up shop in the lower equipment bay, transfer to the left couch, and wheel Columbia around to face the LM.

It looks good! I can look out through my docking reticle and see they are steady as a rock as they drive down the center line of that final approach path. I give them some numbers. “1 have 0.7 mile and I got you at thirty-one feet per second.” Buzz replies, “Yes-yes, we’re in good shape, Mike; we’re braking.” We really are going to carry this thing off! For the first time since I was assigned to this incredible flight six months ago, for the first time I feel that it is going to happen. Granted, we are a long way from home, but from here on, it should be all downhill. Bigger and bigger the LM gets in my window, until finally it nearly fills it completely. I haven’t touched the controls. Neil is flying in formation with me, and doing it beautifully, with no relative motion between us. I guess he is about fifty feet away, which means the rendezvous is over. “I got the earth coming up…it’s fantastic!” I shout at Neil and Buzz, and grab for my camera, to get all three actors (earth, moon, and Eagle) in the same picture. Too bad Columbia will show up only as a window frame, if at all. Within a few seconds Houston joins the conversation, with a tentative little call. “Eagle and Columbia, Houston standing by.” They want to know what’s going on, but they don’t want to interrupt us if we are in a crucial spot in our final maneuvering. Good heads! However, they needn’t worry, and Neil lets them know it. “Roger, we’re stationkeeping. “

It’s time to hustle on down into the tunnel and remove hatch, probe, and drogue, so Neil and Buzz can get through the tunnel. Thank God, all the claptrap works beautifully in this its final workout. The probe and drogue will stay with the LM and be abandoned with it, for we have no further need for them and don’t want them cluttering up the command module. The first one through is Buzz, with a big smile on his face. I grab his head, a hand on each temple, and am about to give him a smooch on the forehead, as a parent might greet an errant child; but then, embarrassed, I think better of it and grab his hand, and then Neil’s.

We cavort about a little bit, all smiles and giggles over our success, and then it’s back to work as usual, as Neil and Buzz prepare the LM for its final journey and I help them transfer equipment into Columbia. We also have to go through an elaborate vacuum-cleaning procedure to make sure that everything returning from the LM is free of loose dust or dirt. The microbe people have insisted on it, to keep any lunar bugs in the LM, and we go along with it as best we can, feeling slightly ridiculous. We also are pumping oxygen from Columbia into the LM and thence overboard, so any bugs would have to swim upstream to get into Columbia. Finally comes the punch line, the reason for making the trip. Buzz announces, “Get ready for those million-dollar boxes. Got a lot of weight. Now watch it.” I have seen the two lunar rock boxes before, at the Cape: they are shiny little metal caskets about two feet long, built with a fancy sealing system that preserves the rocks in their original environment-the lunar vacuum~without exposing them to our atmosphere and any chemical modifications it might cause.

After we get the rock boxes zippered inside white fiberglass fabric containers, I have a chance to quiz Neil and Buzz about those parts of their experience this back-side absentee missed. “How about that lift-off from the moon; what did it feel like?” “There was a little blast, then we started moving…the floor came up to meet you…maybe half a G or two thirds of a G.” “And the landing was no problem, because as I understand it, the dust did not engulf you but sprayed out parallel to the surface, is that so?” “Yes.” “And the dust can be light tan or dark battleship gray? What do you think it is…basalt dust?” No commitment there. “Well, do the rocks all look the same?” No, there are differences, they say; some have “little sparkly stuff” in them, and they had time enough to take samples carefully from the most interesting specimens they could find. “Great, great…man, that’s beautiful…that’ll keep those geologists jumping for years.” My curiosity about things geologic is easily quelled; besides, it is time to get on with other things, such as dumping the LM and heading for home.

When the time comes to jettison Eagle, I flip the necessary switches, there is a small bang, and away she goes, backing off with stately grace. With her goes the probe and drogue, thank God, and I simply can’t express my pleasure at not ever having to fool with them again! In fact, the whole LM has been nothing but a worry for me, and I’m glad to see the end of it. Neil and Buzz, on the other hand, seem genuinely sad: old Eagle has served them well and deserves a formal or at least a dignified burial. Instead, it is to be left in orbit, while Houston watches its systems slowly die. Then its carcass will be an orbiting derelict for days, or weeks, or months-until finally its orbit deteriorates and it crashes forlornly into the lunar surface.

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys” is one of those books I keep re-reading. It’s history, and it’s packed with protein-enriched geekiness. More than anything else, it’s a travel story. Apollo 11 is only 40 years in our past but it’s already been polished smooth and robbed of most of its nooks and crannies. The larger the scale of an event, the harder it is to progress beyond the iconography. The grainy video of Armstrong’s hop from the last rung of the ladder onto the footpad. The famous line when he actually stepped onto the surface. Cronkite, rendered speechless. Check, check and check: okay, now we move on to the next page.

Thank God for books like this. It preserves the granular details. It is the letters of John Adams to his wife Abigail, it is the wartime columns of Ernie Pyle; it is understanding, not mere information.