The third man who went to the Moon but didn’t land

“The moon I have known all my life, that two‐dimensional, small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen. To begin with it is huge, completely filling our window. Second, it is three‐dimensional. The belly of it bulges out towards us in such pronounced fashion that I almost feel I can reach out and touch it… The vague reddish‐yellow of the sun’s corona, the blanched white of earthshine, and the pure black of the star-studded surrounding sky all combine to cast a bluish glow over the moon. This cool, magnificent sphere hangs there ominously, a formidable presence without sound or motion, issuing us no invitation to invade its domain.” Michael Collins

In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir, the naturist, environmentalist, and essayist who met the beauty of nature through solo walks of solitude, reflected, “The deeper the solitude the less the sense of loneliness, and the nearer our friends.” And what kind of solitude is greater than being alone in space, orbiting the Moon solo, as all sorts of communication with other human beings alive both in space and on earth, were jettisoned altogether?

During the Apollo 11 mission, as the whole world witnessed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set the first historical step on the Moon, Michael Collins orbited above them in his Columbia ship, all alone. His main mission was to fly and maneuver the Command Module in a way so that the Eagle, where Armstrong and Aldrin were in, could dock perfectly after it took off from the Moon. Operating the Command Module all by himself, Collins was fully trained to fly this rocket ship without the assistance of the other two astronauts. Because if anything happened to the Eagle as they jetted off of the Moon and taking off was a failure, then Collins was to fly the ship, solo, en-route to Earth.

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Michael Collins

Collins was the forgotten Apollo 11 astronaut whose graceful surrender to whatever fate came to his life has shaped him to be one of the most humble Apollo astronauts. The Apollo 11 missions reigned unprecedented fame for decades forward, giving both Armstrong and Aldrin who stepped on the moon a stardom status. The mission was humane as much as it is political, enlarging our ambitions beyond Earth. To many Apollo astronauts who had stepped on the Moon, returning and living on Earth took a whole lot different meaning and some astronauts had real difficulties coping with this. “After the moon landing I felt at first there might not be anything as great I could do again,” said Buzz Aldrin.

And then there was Michael Collins, the poetic astronaut who was so close to stepping on the Moon, but was assigned to operate the orbiting ship; the third astronaut who was rarely mentioned and understood, but whose role is the most critical to its success in its entirely; the man who was in the shadow of the stardom, but found greater meanings from flying above the Moon and occupying the serene solitude in the far side of the Moon.

You have experienced an aloneness unknown to man before. I believe you will find that it lets you think and sense with a greater clarity.

Collins spent nearly a whole day on the ship alone. And in that period, his ship went to the far side of the Moon three times, each for roughly an hour. As he entered Moon’s far side, all communications with Houston and Eager were abruptly cut off, blocked by the celestial lunar body, giving Collins a near complete silence.

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 knows what on this side.

 

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All humans ever lived, plus Armstrong and Aldrin in the Eagle lunar module. Michael Collins behind the camera.

This iconic photo taken by Collins was often dubbed as ‘the only photo that depicts the entire humanity, death or alive, except for Collins.’ A humble and elusive character, in an interview almost a decade after the moon landing, Collins expressed he felt far from lonely or abandoned while he was on the far side.

Collins retired as soon as the Apollo 11 mission was over. The Apollo Missions went for another few years before beginning to receive funding cuts. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong both stayed at NASA until early 70s. Collins was set to land on the Moon in one of the upcoming missions, but he declined, later stating that he was perfectly satisfied to have orbited the Moon, experienced the ultimate solitude and won’t trade it even with Neil’s seat as a Commander. In the early 1970s, he became the Director for the newly built National Air and Space Museum. He has now retired, taking up watercolor painting of nature, fishing, and worrying about stock market.

I am also planning to leave a lot of things undone. Part of life’s mystery depends on future possibilities, and mystery is an elusive quality which evaporates when sampled frequently, to be followed by boredom. For example, catching various types of fish is on my list of good things to do, but I would be reluctant to rush into it, even if i had the time. I want no part of destroying fishing as a mysterious sport.

Now, relinquishing the memories of going to the space twice and the moon once, he recalled:

I’ll be out at night and I’ll see a nice moon, and say, “Hey, that looks good.” Then I’ll say, “Oh shit, I went up there one time!” Kind of surprises me. It’s like there are two Moons, you know—the one that’s usually around, and then that one.

The 20th July this year marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

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Michael Collins in Columbia. Photo Corbis

P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase

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