The “forgotten man” of the Apollo 11 mission that first landed men on the moon, Michael Collins was part of Astronaut Group 3, the fourteen astronauts whose selection was announced in October 1963. He also flew the Gemini 10 mission, which performed rendezvous maneuvers with two different spacecraft and also featured two successful EVAs by Collins. Like most astronauts of the time, Michael Collins had experience in the military and as a test pilot.
Interview with Michael Collins
Early Life and Military Career
Michael Collins was born in Rome on October 30, 1930, the son of General James Collins, who was then serving as an American army attaché. His family moved around a lot when he was a young boy as his father took different posts, with stops in Oklahoma, New York, Ohio, Texas, and, when he was ten years old, Puerto Rico. He took all the moves well, though a house of ill-repute near his home in Puerto Rico frightened him despite the girls’ efforts to encourage him by tossing him money. He had an older brother and two older sisters, but spent a lot of his time playing by himself. His family moved to Washington, D.C. after the Pearl Harbor attack of 1942 and Collins was sent to an Episcopal preparatory school. He got into a lot of mischief, though he was usually able to amusingly play innocent.
Neither of his parents encouraged him to go into the military, but he chose to go into West Point, partly because it was free. He graduated in the top third of his class in 1952. Committed to four years of service, he chose the Air Force and became part of a squadron stationed in France.
He met his wife, Pat Finnegan, in a bar not far from his base, where she was working with the air force service club. His pick-up line was, “Hi, I’m Mike Collins. Do you live here?” Their wedding was delayed by a reassignment to Germany in 1956 due to the Hungarian Revolution and they were finally married in 1957.
He became an Air Force test pilot, a position he felt took more maturity and intelligence than being a fighter pilot. In 1961, he was admitted to the test pilot school at Edwards, which had recently changed its name to the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School. They were just beginning to build a program designed to prepare military test pilots for spaceflight. The Air Force was convinced that it was the natural breeding ground for future astronauts and topics included such unlikely subjects as proper etiquette for potential applicants.
Second Time’s The Charm
Once the idea of joining NASA occurred to Michael Collins, he became so enthusiastic about it that he actually applied to become an astronaut twice. In 1962, he was an applicant for the second group of astronauts, from which Neil Armstrong and eight others was selected. Collins was rejected, but soon received hints that NASA could choose a third group of astronauts. In 1963, this was confirmed when NASA asked for applications. Some of the NASA employees involved in the selection process remembered him from the first time, so he was spared the psychological tests on the assumption that he would have developed no major problems in a single year. He was informed that he made the final cut in October of that year, along with 13 others, including Buzz Aldrin.
Michael Collins quickly learned that being an astronaut was somewhat different from being an ordinary test pilot. For starters, NASA had put together a classroom study course for its astronauts, which included such interesting subjects as geology, astronomy, rocket propulsion, aerodynamics, meteorology, and digital computers. There was some grumbling about the geology course among the more experienced astronauts, who believed that nobody would care if they could rattle off the chemical structure of the minerals as long as they got the moon rocks home for the “real” geologists to study. However, to Collins and the rest of the 1963 group, it was just one course out of many.
Collins enjoyed the geology field trips, including one to the Grand Canyon. He found the flora and fauna more interesting than the geological formations and engaged in stone throwing contests with Gene Cernan. The geology trips tended to be more relaxed than his other travel duties, such as PR appearances or inspecting the engineering work being done at various NASA contractors.
The classes did give Collins the chance to get to know his fellow astronauts better. His impressions were mostly favorable, though they did alter with time. He didn’t pay much attention to Walt Cunningham’s loudly stated belief that he should be first on the moon due to his scientific prowess and he didn’t realize in 1963 that fame wouldn’t sit well with Buzz Aldrin. Collins thought of himself as being the laziest in a batch of overachievers.
At the end of the classroom courses, each astronaut was asked to rate their fellows. Collins received a mock diploma stating that he had finished “Basic Grubby Training” and could now leave town without a den mother.
“Basic Grubby Training” apparently didn’t include such subjects as survival training. Early on, somebody in NASA figured out that a spacecraft might malfunction and land its occupants in the jungle, so Collins was sent off with the rest of the astronauts into South America. He hated it. He blamed his partner, Bill Anders, for attracting a swarm of mosquitoes the first night. Breakfast was heart of palm, found on the second try after their first tree turned out to be rotten and ant-infested, and iguana meat. Collins was impressed by the chieftain of the local Choco Indians, who didn’t seem to believe or care that their long-term mission was to go to the moon. He picked up some chiggers on the way out of the jungle and the suggested remedies of Scotch, sand, ice picks, nail polish did not work for him. The entire group celebrated their return to civilization by throwing a bachelor party for C. C. Williams.
Week in the Barrel
As part of their PR work, all astronauts would take turns making NASA-arranged public appearances. They starting calling their mini-tours the “week in the barrel.” This could be anything from showing up at a senator’s dinner at the Elk Club to Boy Scout meetings. The rookie astronauts were usually the ones in “the barrel.”
Collins disliked PR work but took his turns. His main gripes had to do with the occasional rude autograph-seekers or watching his schedule fall farther behind as he tried to pack too much into a week. He recalls one incident when he was at a Boy Scout event. He was still a “rookie” astronaut who had not yet flown in space. He was sitting on the stage, waiting to be introduced, when a persistent Boy Scout crept behind the stage and kept tugging in his leg. Collins tried to ignore him. Finally, the Scout piped up, “Hey, buddy, aren’t any of the real astronauts coming?”
After leaving NASA, Collins managed his own public appearances. To keep his schedule from overwhelming him, he has to decline far more appearances than he accepts. This occasionally leads to complaints that he is not doing enough to support NASA or space exploration; he may reasonably answer that it is simply not possible to accept them all.
Once the fourteen astronauts finished training, they were each assigned one technological area to tackle on the theory that they could bring a test pilot’s perspective to it. Collins requested, and got, the field of pressure suits. Pressure suits were meant to protect an astronaut from the hazards of space. They were especially important during EVAs, or “space walks,” because astronauts were leaving the relative safety of their spacecraft and entering the black of space. The picture is one of the earliest EVA-rated suit models (circa Gemini 9).
Michael Collins’ primary job was to monitor the development of the suits and related equipment, make sure it was safe and practical, and insure that it was up to the standards of the astronaut office. This meant a lot of travel, as contractors and subcontractors were located in a variety of places throughout the United States.
The equipment for the EVA suits used during Gemini were very different from the suits that would be used for the Apollo moon walks. Oxygen for the astronaut doing EVA work for Gemini would come through an umbilical, basically a long and flexible tube, that would stretch from inside the spacecraft to a chest pack on the suit. Another piece of equipment developed for Gemini was the AMU, or Astronaut Maneuvering Unit. An early version was a contraption which the astronaut would strap onto his back and use to propel himself in a manner that Michael Collins compared to Buck Rogers. The actual version could be attached to the pressure suit when the astronaut backed into it and pulled down two levers to hook up its electrical and oxygen supply. They tested it on two flights and decided it was too cumbersome to be much use. Collins used another version on Gemini 10 and had better luck with it.
Pete Conrad did file one complaint about an early version of the Apollo suits, noting that it made one fellow astronaut look like “a football player cast in cement” and his “wasn’t any better.” NASA encouraged improvements by stirring up competition between the three contractors interested in producing pressure suits. Each company created one suit fitted to Collins for testing. He put each suit through a rigorous routine that included the centrifuge, which would test the suits’ ability to handle the heavy Gs of liftoff. Astronauts had to be able to move freely even while the suits were pressurized and they had to be airtight and durable. The new suits included a backpack that would provide oxygen for the astronauts, as opposed to them relying on an umbilical that could get tangled up or severed during an EVA. The Apollo version of the suit also featured one element familiar to most people with a casual interest in NASA: the gold-tinted visor on the helmet. This was designed to protect astronauts’ eyes from the sun’s intense rays, especially in the ultraviolet spectrum. ILC’s suit won the “most improved” award and NASA granted ILC the contract.
Often, the first hint that an astronaut was assigned to a flight came when he was sent out to be measured for his suit. Documentation often referred to “Castor” or “Pollux” rather than the astronaut’s real name to avoid leaks. This did not always stop rumors, because around the Manned Space Center, people noticed where the astronauts were going and when. Three suits would be made for each astronaut, one for training as well as a primary suit and a backup for each flight. The training suit often saw several hundred hours of use as it went through simulations, centrifuges, zero-G planes and anything else that required a sense of realism. The suits meant for flight might see twenty hours of use before each flight, on the theory that if one failed, it would happen during the first few hours of use and they could always switch to the backup rather than delay a flight due to a missing zipper.
Although Collins would never have admitted it during his career as an astronaut, he occasionally got claustrophobia in his pressure suit during training. He would be doing some strenuous task, become short of breath, and start to panic a bit. He could usually cover by asking the man on the other end of the umbilical to turn the oxygen up a notch. He once casually asked the pressure suit engineers whether people ever got claustrophobia in these things and they told him one guy went “absolutely bananas” when they tried it out on him. Collins was fortunately able to sort it out before his two EVAs for Gemini 10.
Gemini 10 Launch
When Michael Collins and John Young began preparing for Gemini 10, Collins admitted to feeling a little overwhelmed by how much they had to do in three days: two rendezvous with different unmanned Agena spacecraft in two different orbits, two EVAs, as well as fifteen scientific and technical experiments. Collins pushed for a fourth day to get everything done but was overruled. He could have done without the new Module VI computer and associated navigational experiments, which required him to make measurements with the sextant. The purpose was to test the idea of making navigational computations on board the spacecraft rather than on the ground. He felt that their schedule was already so packed that they could have saved it for another flight.
The first EVA would be a simple experiment with a camera to, among other things, get the ultraviolet signature of certain stars. The second, more complex, EVA came with the goal of retrieving a package from an earlier Agena that had been left behind by the abortive Gemini 8. The second rendezvous would be the more challenging because the Agena had lost power. This meant they would not be able to communicate with it or use radar, and it was possible that it would be spinning like a top or tumbling end over end. They knew where it should be, but that was it.
Launch occurred as scheduled, on July 18th, 1966, with smooth liftoffs of both the Agena-Atlas and Gemini-Titan spacecraft. Collins had spent much of the night before going over last-minute flight plan details with Young and slept until nearly noon. Such late nights were nothing new to Collins, as he had experienced many of them while training and helping with preparations for the flight. While getting into his suit the flight, he happened to glimpse a TV announcer attempting to explain what would happen using two toy trains to represent the Gemini-Titan spacecraft and the Agena. He was amused by the oversimplifications the announcer was using.
The first staging separation apparently alarmed Collins’ wife, who was watching on a TV screen and thought the spacecraft had exploded with her husband on board. However, all was well. Collins and Young were both too busy to spend more than a few seconds looking out the window, something that Collins regretted because the view was spectacular. They were making one orbit every ninety minutes, so darkness came quickly and “sunrise” was a dramatic explosion of golden, orange, and white light.
At the first onset of “nightfall,” Collins brought out his sextant. His job was to measure the angle between a selection of target stars and the horizon and enter that data into the Module VI computer. His first star was Schedar in the constellation Cassiopeia. He had trouble finding the horizon, where the stars were supposed to be replaced by solid black, because they seemed to gradually fade out without any solid cutoff point. He gradually got the hang of it but it put them behind. When they swung back into day, he was so busy with the Module VI calculation that he must have sounded grouchy to Young when he said, “I’ll look tomorrow.” The results of the data were mixed and Collins blamed his troubles with the sextant.
Of course, they couldn’t worry about it for long and they had Houston’s computations to back them up. They fired their thrusters at planned intervals to get into proper alignment with the first Agena. They came into view easily enough, but discovered while slowing for the rendezvous that they had inadvertently created what they called a “whifferdill,” an error that caused them to be outside of the plane they wanted. They were able to correct, but it cost them fuel. They later learned that the whifferdill was due to a misaligned inertial platform. Luckily, they were able to use their Agena’s engine to boost them on their way to the Gemini 8 Agena. Still, they both knew that the fuel situation meant that they were likely to miss out on some of their planned activities. Collins feared the cancellation of one or both of his EVAs.
With the Agena, they boosted up to 475 miles above Earth’s surface, then a world record for altitude. To make room for Collins’ first EVA, they canceled the extra docking practice. The ultraviolet camera Collins used had broken its timer during one of the engine burns, so Young counted off seconds as Collins took exposures of different stars. While preparing for the EVA, Deke Slayton came on the radio and asked them to be more talkative for the people on the ground. Collins did most of the talking, describing the Agena and telling them about the broken camera. Houston responded with news of a series of games between the Astros and the Mets, which Collins considered irrelevant. Collins took exposures of the constellations Centaurus and Pleiades, as well as a picture of a primary-colored titanium plate they had brought along for a color test. Collins thought the last was somewhat goofy, considering that they had the entire sky to photograph, but did it anyway.
After a night’s rest, they jettisoned their Agena twenty-two hours after they had planned on before the flight, but the Agena’s engine did enable them to catch up with the Gemini 8 Agena. They caught the inoperative Agena with no more whifferdills. The Agena was steady with no unwanted motions.
Preparations for Collins’ second EVA included a 70-item checklist. Collins happily stowed his rendezvous charts and sextant, attached his chest pack, and hooked up the 50-foot umbilical. He also took along the camera he had used earlier to take pictures of the Agena, the Gemini, and Earth. Then, he heard from Houston that they were “go” for the EVA.
His first task was to remove a micrometeorite detection plate from one of the thrusters. The main danger was that Young might fire the thruster before Collins could get out of the way. The Gemini would have crashed into the Agena if Young couldn’t fire, but Collins would get fried if Young fired at the wrong moment. Dealing with the nitrogen line for Collins’ maneuvering gun was a fairly complex job, as Collins couldn’t loop it around one of the hand rails as planned. He finally just handed it off to Young, who was still at the Gemini’s controls.
He pushed off the Gemini toward the Agena and made it to the cone-shaped docking adapter on the Agena. There, he ran into a problem: no hand holds. By keeping a grip on the adapter, he was able to hand-walk over to the package, but Newton’s first law of motion worked against him and he lost his grip on the Agena. He used the maneuvering gun to recover, but he wound up behind Gemini. He managed to get to the Gemini and then back to Agena. He retrieved the package and brought it back to Gemini. And then he discovered that, during all his wild maneuvering, he had lost the camera! That meant a wasted first EVA and some disappointed scientists back home.
Collins finished the day with some reconstituted chicken soup, which he thoroughly enjoyed along with the view. While he ate his soup, they passed over Hawaii and most of North America. He fell asleep thinking of John Magee, the pilot-poet who had authored “High Flight,” and wondering what he would have made of the view from orbit. They splashed down the next day.
Launch of Apollo 11
Preparing for Apollo 11
PPKs and Other Minutiae At first, it was not a sure thing that Apollo 11 would be first to land on the moon. There was a slim chance that it could have been Apollo 10, which ended up doing everything but the actual landing. If there were problems serious enough to warrant a delay, the lunar landing could have been pushed back to Apollo 12. Collins himself gave Apollo 11 a fifty percent chance for the first lunar landing.
Collins wasn’t even initially sure if he would be on board 11. There was a distinct possibility that Fred Haise and Jim Lovell would be assigned as prime crew instead of Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. However, Deke Slayton, who was in charge of the Astronaut Office, talked it over with Neil Armstrong. Armstrong decided that he was okay with Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Lovell and Haise were assigned to the backup crew.
Once the crews were decided on, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins became the equivalent of big rock stars around the NASA facilities. Collins was quickly asked for his opinion on devices designed to contain any theoretical lunar germs they might bring back with them. This included the biological isolation garment (BIG), which Collins compared to an extremely pared-down version of his pressure suits. He wasn’t particularly worried about germs, as he had other problems to occupy his attention.
Among his biggest worries was the rendezvous that would take place between the lunar module and the command module after the lunar landing. If everything went well, the lunar module would launch from the moon at the proper moment and reach the command module without a single hitch. His experience with Gemini 10 had taught him what whifferdills could cost in terms of fuel. They might have problems with the docking. During the Apollo 10 mission, the docking had been so wild that it actually prompted one of the crew to curse on live radio. The lunar module might launch late, causing both the command module and lunar module to adjust their orbits so the lunar module could catch up. It might not launch at all or might suffer an in-flight malfunction and crash, in which case Collins would have no choice but to return to Earth alone.
As an example of how many hours an astronaut could spend preparing for a flight, Michael Collins jotted down the events of April 14th, 1969. First thing in the morning, he was in Houston training in the centrifuge. He was pulling 10 Gs that day, enough to make his chest cave in and his vision narrow in a near-blackout. He was so dizzy when he emerged, he would have collapsed if he dared move his head. He had no time to spare for recovery, as he had to hurry down to the CM simulator, where he spent several hours repeatedly practicing reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The technicians threw several obscure technical failures into the simulation for him to solve. Sometimes he was able to solve them, while other times, the reentry failed and the command module was “destroyed.” After that, he had to don a bulky pressure suit for a PR picture that included Armstrong and Aldrin with a pale blue moon. He then went down to the airport to plan a trip to Cape Canaveral in one of NASA’s trusty T-38s. He paused only a moment to call his wife to let her know he would be gone for a day or two. Their dog had bitten a neighbor child, causing some chaos. With no time to grab dinner, Collins was streaking into the sky in the T-38 promptly at seven in the evening. After such a long day, he was so tired that he mistook a landmark in Baltimore for one in Washington.
Mission Training, Pre-Launch Activities & Saturn V Launch
PPKs and Other Minutiae
Each astronaut would be allowed one Personal Preference Kit, or PPK, in which he could take small items that he chose on Apollo 11. Within guidelines, of course; John Young had inadvertently caused a rumpus by smuggling a corned beef sandwich onto Gemini Three and giving it to Gus Grissom. Collins’ PPK included prayers, poems, medallions, coins, flags, envelopes, brooches, tie pins, insignia, cuff links, rings, a diaper pin, and a hollow bean that contained fifty small elephants somebody had carved from slivers of ivory.
Correspondence included well-wishes and advice from all sorts of people, which the astronauts did not always have time to pay attention to. Anything that required their signature could be signed with a machine, though some serious autograph collectors did not like that. Collins remembers one man from Israel who wrote in, warning about gigantic anthills on the moon and offering a map of them, for a price. To the best of Collins’ knowledge, the anthill man was ignored.
Collins himself came up with a rough draft of the Apollo 11 insignia after seeing a National Geographic book that included a picture of an eagle ready to come in for a landing. He made a sketch of the bird on tissue paper and drew in a rough view of the lunar surface. He added the Earth in the background but made a mistake by drawing the sunshine coming from the wrong direction. As a result, the shadowed crescent on the Earth was on the left side instead of on the bottom. He pencilled in APOLLO ELEVEN, which was later changed to Apollo 11. He initially sketched the olive branch in the eagle’s beak, but NASA headquarters thought the eagle’s extended talons looked too warlike, so the branch was moved from the beak to the claw. He thought this arrangement looked awkward for the eagle, which would have had to drop the branch before landing.
The crew got to choose call signs for the command module and the lunar module. After some discussion, they chose Columbia for the command module and Eagle for the lunar module.
Hopefully, one matter that Apollo 11 would settle was the color of the moon. Apollo 8, which had flown a strictly lunar-orbital mission with no Lunar Module, had seen black and white and shades of gray. Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the landing, had seen tan and brown. People wondered how six supposedly expert observers could be divided evenly on such a subject.
One Month And Counting
Training reached the point where the Apollo 11 crew had to minimize distractions to get the job done and Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins moved into crew quarters thirty days before the launch. Maids kept the place sparkly-clean and did their laundry. A chef named Lew Hartzell cooked for them. He didn’t seem to believe in diets, or else he had heard the complaints about space flight food and wanted to make up for it. If he could have gotten them to the moon on meat, potatoes and rich desserts, he would have.
They were generally up by seven. Collins would typically rush through breakfast and then head to the flight simulator. He had come up with eighteen different rendezvous scenarios and eleven major areas of the flight that he wanted to cover. Hartzell would deliver lunch in sealed containers and they would eat and answer their phone messages at the same time. Many of them were from people who felt they had been snubbed when NASA sent out invitations to the launch. The crew themselves had no control over this and Collins often wondered why they were calling him. Other people would have ideas about their training and what areas were apparently being neglected. Collins didn’t ignore them, but was more interested in the latest simulator results.
The simulator did cause one spat between the crew. Once, Armstrong ignored Houston’s order to abort the landing and “crashed.” Buzz Aldrin was not happy about it and, later that night, complained loudly to Collins. Armstrong came out of his room in his pajamas and jumped into the fray. Collins did not want to get caught in the middle and retreated. Armstrong and Aldrin continued the discussion long into the night and apparently reached a resolution, because Collins noticed no change in their demeanor the next day.
Collins did not deny that he was feeling the strain, too. He knew perfectly well that the world was watching and the pressure was on to not mess this one up. Only those closely involved with Apollo knew how many ways things could go wrong in a hurry. He decided at some point during his training for Apollo 11 that, if everything went smoothly, it would be his last space flight.
Launch Day arrived on July 16th, which meant an early start for the astronauts. Collins, Aldrin, and Armstrong got a wake-up call at shortly after 4 a.m. courtesy of Deke Slayton. Long-time NASA nurse Dee O’Hara was on hand to take some last-minute measurements and Lew Hartzell rolled out his last heroic breakfast of steak and eggs, toast, juice, and coffee. Artist Paul Calle sketched them while they ate breakfast. Collins remembered Calle as a complete and unobtrusive professional. They were pretty casual over breakfast although Slayton had only scheduled slightly over half an hour for it.
They suited up and headed out to the launchpad, easily leaping such hurdles as reporters who wanted to take one last picture and early-morning traffic on an already busy road. Approaching the launchpad in the van, Collins got one last look at the rocket that would take them into space. The Saturn rockets used for the Apollo program were the biggest rockets used by NASA to date, three times taller than the Gemini-Titan. At any other time, the launchpad would have been swarming with people and activity. Now, it was deserted. They took an elevator up to the level where they could enter the Columbia. Neil Armstrong entered first, and then Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin entered last. Backup crew member Fred Haise was there, running some last-minute checks. He finished up and left, closing the hatch behind him. Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin would see no other people until they returned from the moon.
Collins was thankful that he had already flown in Gemini 10. He was tense, but at least it was not an unfamiliar situation. If the mission failed, he did not want it to be because of him. His main fear was that something would go horribly wrong with the actual lunar landing and he would have to come back to Earth alone. Along with his fellow crewmates, he ran through the last few preflight checks.
At this point, the most important control on board was the abort handle next to Neil Armstrong. If something went wrong, he would rotate it by thirty degrees and activate the ejection system. Armstrong’s left leg sported a large, bulky pocket that looked like it could snag the handle at any moment. Collins could just imagine the headlines: “Moonshot Falls Into Ocean! Last Transmission From Armstrong Before Leaving Launchpad: Oops!” He alerted Armstrong, who did his best to move the pocket.
Mission Control began the traditional countdown to zero. Collins felt like the whole world shouted, “Lift-off!” in his ear at the same time he was pushed back into his seat. The entire contraption they were riding in gave them a good, noisy shake as they left the launchpad. This was normal and subsided quickly. For a rocket ride, it was quite smooth and they never went higher than 4.5 G during this part of the trip. They reached orbit and were now dangling “upside down,” with their heads facing Earth’s surface, completely weightless.
While preparing for the Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI), which would put them on a course to lunar orbit, Michael Collins had to take some measurements of a couple of stars to make sure the navigational system was working correctly. That meant he ran up against his old enemy, the sextant. He got some assistance from the computer to find one of the stars and it went more smoothly than the last time. He went on to unpack and distribute items to Armstrong and Aldrin. These included some cameras that he sent Aldrin’s direction, though Aldrin was distracted by an errant reading. Collins left one hanging in midair for him to grab.
Collins wanted to get a picture of the sunrise coming up over the horizon, only to find out that a camera was missing. “Has anyone seen a Hasselblad floating by?” He finally found the Hasselblad camera in a corner, too late to get a picture of the sunrise. He was still glad he had found it, as it was dangerous to leave it floating loose when the TLI ignited.
At the proper moment, Houston radioed up, “Apollo 11, this is Houston. You are GO for TLI.” Collins answered, “Apollo 11. Thank you.” The Saturn lit its engine, mixing hydrogen and oxygen to push them out of Earth orbit and toward the moon. Collins reported seeing flashes of light outside his window. Armstrong didn’t see anything at first, and then he saw the same thing outside his own window. Collins thought he was seeing evidence of the Saturn engine firing. It later turned out that their eyes were playing tricks on them. The burn accelerated them to 35,579 feet per second, enough to escape Earth orbit and reach the moon.
End of Day One
Now it was time to separate the command and service modules from the Saturn that had gotten them this far and attach the lunar module (LM). Michael Collins did this manually. He planned to coast out to seventy-five feet from the Saturn, at the same time turning the command and service modules so that they would face it. The computer balked at the turn and he had to hit the “proceed” button a few times. By the time he accomplished it, they had drifted out to one hundred feet. It didn’t cost him much more fuel than he had planned to return, but he still didn’t like it. He wanted every possible drop of fuel available in case the planned rendezvous in lunar orbit did not go smoothly. He spotted the LM in its container on the Saturn, aligned his cross hairs, and made the connection with the LM. He compared it to an aerial refueling maneuver without airflow or turbulence. He checked to make sure all was well with the connection between CM and LM, and then they could leave the Saturn behind.
After that, Collins had another go with the sextant to realign their inertial platform. The realignment went smoothly, but then, he had to measure the angles between five stars and Earth’s horizon. He gamely waded through it, but his results were inaccurate and he was discouraged. But this time, it was just for practice; he could get help from Houston until he had to swing around the moon and lost contact with them.
Their final task of the day was to adjust the spacecraft so that it would be broadside to the sun and rotating slightly. This was meant to keep any part of the ship from overheating in the sun’s rays or freezing on the dark side of the ship. Achieving a perfect roll without pitch or yaw required a perfectly calculated series of thruster firings. Once this was done, they could see an alternating view of Earth and the moon out their windows. Earth was noticeably receding. The three crew members secured any loose items floating around, and then Armstrong and Aldrin climbed into mesh sleeping beds under the seats and Collins took the “watch” position in the left seat. If Houston called during the night, he would answer.
For the astronauts, the day began with a wake-up call from Houston, some flight-plan updates, and the morning news. Russia had launched a probe called Luna 15 that Mission Control feared would interfere with their mission. Collins was not worried about it and Luna 15 would ultimately suffer a failure and crash into the lunar surface. President Nixon had declared July 21st a national holiday in Apollo 11′s honor, though Collins thought that was premature, as they hadn’t even reached the moon yet.
Finally, Houston let Collins go and he set about making coffee for himself and his comrades. He had tasted better, but at least it was coffee. There were only minor housekeeping chores and one mid-course correction to be made and Collins took care of most of the housekeeping. Apollo 11 was noticeably slowing down, but this was due to Earth’s gravity and that would change when lunar gravity took over. After lunch, Armstrong and Aldrin discussed their part of the trip, leaving Collins without much to do. As a test, he braced his hands against a bulkhead and ran in place. He asked Houston if they were picking up on an increase in his heartbeat and they acknowledged that he was up to 96 beats per minute. Armstrong joined in while Aldrin filmed them both with an onboard TV camera. Then, they pointed the camera at the Earth while Armstrong described what they saw. Then, Collins slowly turned the camera upside down, announcing, “OK, world, hang on to your hats. I’m going to turn you upside down.”
Of course, there is no up or down in space. It did take some getting used to. Collins was reminded of a psychologist who insisted that the inside of the early space capsules be painted brown and blue to simulate “ground” and “sky.” He thought that was ridiculous, as they were moving all over the cabin and weren’t necessarily straight “up” and “down” all the time. Still, as he went to sleep that night, he had the distinct impression that he was lying on his back.
Entering Lunar Orbit
Day Three was as quiet as Day Two. They listened to music as they handled housekeeping and they also did a brief TV show. Oddly, they never got a view of the moon on the third day. On the fourth day, Collins got his first real close-up look at the moon. He described it as a huge, three-dimensional sphere that he felt he could reach out and touch. The sun was behind it and cast a halo, adding to the dramatic effect. Armstrong stated, “It’s a view worth the price of the trip.” Collins thought it looked uninviting, but said nothing.
Houston cut in with reminders of some tests and the day’s news. A Russian newspaper named Pravda had dubbed Mission Commander Neil Armstrong the “Czar of the Ship.” They were prepared to go into lunar orbit, which meant firing their engine twice to slow down. These two firings were dubbed LOI-1 and LOI-2, for Lunar Orbit Injection. As they swung around the far side of the moon, they would be out of communication with Houston, which meant they would have to extract themselves from any trouble they got into. LOI-1 went beautifully and their orbit came within a tenth of a mile of their predictions. They all felt that, for traveling 250,000 miles so far, a tenth of a mile wasn’t bad at all. LOI-2 put them in a nearly circular orbit around the sun.
Now they had time to admire the view. Armstrong told Houston, “It’s just like the pictures, but like the difference between watching a real football game and watching it on TV. There’s no substitute for actually being here.” They recognized some of the landmarks near the Sea of Tranquility. The shadows made it look rough but Collins knew it would appear a lot smoother when it came time to attempt the landing. On the matter of what color the moon was, they decided it depended on what “time of day” they were looking at it from. At lunar dawn and dusk, it looked like Apollo 8′s description of black, gray, and white. Around noon, it was a rose color, and it looked like Apollo 10′s description of black, brown, tan and white during late morning and early afternoon. Finally, slightly after midnight Houston time, they called it a night.
This was the part that really made Collins nervous. If something went horribly wrong with the lunar landing, he would be returning to Earth “a marked man,” even though there was absolutely nothing he could do except keep the Columbia in orbit and help with the docking when they returned.
Flight Director Glynn Lunney’s CapCom in Mission Control woke them: “Apollo 11, Apollo 11, this is the Black Team.” Collins fumbled for the microphone and answered sleepily, “Good morning, Houston. You guys wake up early.” “Yes, looks like you were really sawing them away.”
As they made breakfast and prepared equipment to transfer to the LM, Houston kept up a steady stream of chatter. One news story involved a Chinese legend of a woman named Chang-O who had been living on the moon for four thousand years with a rabbit and a cinnamon tree. Collins grumbled about it; he was half asleep and already going over everything that needed to be done. The three of them checked each other’s pressure suits. A broken zipper could cause the cancellation of the whole thing. The LM was designed to be a two-man vehicle, so neither Aldrin nor Armstrong could fly it alone. Collins wasn’t rated on the LM, so as much as he might have wished to, he couldn’t take over if somebody’s pressure suit was ripped.
Finally, Aldrin and Armstrong transferred over to the LM and they ran through the final checks. Everything checked out fine. “Keep talking to me, guys,” Collins told them. Then, bidding them goodbye, he said, “You cats take it easy on the lunar surface; if I hear you huffing and puffing down there, I’m going to start bitching at you.”
He threw a switch and the Eagle was flying free. The Eagle did a pirouette so Collins could get a good look at it. “The Eagle has wings!” Aldrin said. Collins couldn’t resist kidding a little: “I think you’ve got a fine-looking flying machine there, Eagle, despite the fact that you’re upside down.” Armstrong joked back, “Somebody’s upside down!”
He gave the Columbia‘s thrusters a mini-firing to give Eagle some maneuvering room. Collins peered at the Eagle through the sextant for as long as he could see them. If they had to abort, he wanted to at least know where they were. At one point, Neil Armstrong’s report of a 1202 error sent Collins scrambling through his list of the error numbers, but it was only a problem of the Eagle‘s computer being asked to do too many things at once. They were still GO.
As they got close to the landing site, Armstrong didn’t like the look of some of the rocks scattered about and took over the controls to look for a better landing spot. He finally found one and landed with only thirty seconds of fuel remaining. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Armstrong’s change of the landing site meant that nobody knew exactly where the Eagle was. Collins would do his best to find them with a telescope and his sextant each time his orbit took him over the Sea of Tranquility, but never saw them.
One of the first things Collins did while awaiting the Eagle‘s return was remove the center couch and stow it. If they couldn’t dock for some reason, Armstrong and Aldrin would have to do an EVA to return to the Columbia with rock samples in tow and removing the couch gave them clear access. He knew the news services had to be making a field day of how he was all alone in lunar orbit, but he was too busy to feel lonely and he would have Houston to talk to until he swung around the far side of the moon. He was certainly aware of his solitude when radio contact did cut off, but it would only be for forty-eight minutes out of each two-hour orbit.
Among his tasks included compensating for gimbal lock, a condition that could prevent the three onboard gyroscopes from moving freely, dumping the waste water, checking the battery charges, and checking a problem with the coolant system. He was able to solve the coolant problem simply by flicking a switch from “automatic” to “manual,” and then back to “automatic.” He had essentially done the equivalent of rebooting the automatic system.
Collins also asked Houston for a relay that would allow him to hear what the two men on the lunar surface were doing. Unfortunately, he had to swing around to the back side of the moon and radio blackout before they stepped out. When he made contact with them again, they were putting up the American flag. He got to listen in on a call from the President of the United States. He could have laughed when the president commented, “As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth.” He hadn’t thought much about what politicians might draw from the name of their landing site and definitely not about it bringing tranquility to anyone. He had been too focused on dealing with the job at hand and the hazards involved.
During his next orbit, Collins casually asked Houston, “How goes it, anyway?” Houston answered, “Roger, Columbia. The crew of Tranquility Base is back inside. Everything went beautifully. Over.” “Hallelujah!” That meant one more hurdle, the very first moon walk, out of the way. Now they were going to get some shuteye before the Eagle spread its wings again.
Collins was up before Armstrong and Aldrin so he could get a head start on the day’s duties. This included 850 keystrokes he had to enter; he described it as “850 chances for me to screw it all up.” Their back-up crew was in the Mission Control room that day to provide moral support. “Glad to have a big room full of people looking over our shoulder,” Collins told them.
The launch went smoothly and, within seven minutes, the Eagle was in orbit. Collins had some difficulty with the VHF radio link, which was supposed to keep a lock on the Eagle. It kept losing the lock, which meant that he would have to pause whatever he was doing to fiddle with it. He first spotted the Eagle as a twinkling speck of light. Stars don’t twinkle in space, so it wasn’t hard for him to keep an eye on them. There was still a chance that something could go wrong with the rendezvous, but he was feeling much more confident now. If something failed on the Eagle, he would become the hunter instead of the hunted and chase it down.
The VHF radio started making funny “woo-woo” noises. If Collins hadn’t been warned about this, it might have alarmed him. Armstrong heard it, too, and compared it to “wind whipping around the trees.” It was only interference, not an alien UFO pranking them. Contrary to rumor, the entire crew of Apollo 11 denies that they ever had any encounters with aliens or alien spacecraft.
The Eagle became a bucking bronco when they attempted the docking, veering dangerously to Collins’ right. He had to swing the Columbia around to avoid damage to the equipment. Finally, the docking clamps closed with no farther problems.
Collins was so happy to see them that he could have kissed Buzz Aldrin when he entered the Columbia first. He restrained himself for the sake of dignity and the three of them transferred the rock samples from the Eagle to the Columbia.
Collins was glad to be able to jettison the lunar module. Armstrong and Aldrin were less happy about it. The Eagle had served them well and they felt it deserved a dignified burial at sea rather than left to circle the moon in a steadily deteriorating orbit until it crashed. Collins’ thoughts raced ahead to the TEI, the trans-earth injection, that would get them out of lunar orbit and back en route to Earth. The recovery ship Hornet was waiting for them and he was anxious to get home.
Return To Earth
Life After NASA
Michael Collins felt that his career as an astronaut had peaked with Apollo 11. During the required post-flight quarantine, he received a congratulatory letter from pioneering aviator Charles A. Lindbergh that he was proud of. With his fellow crew members, he attended the parades, the speeches, the dinners, and sped through a whirlwind world tour. He left what he would always consider to be his dream job and was soon directing the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
If he had been leaving the astronaut corps shorthanded, perhaps he would not have been so quick to leave, but they had so many people that it would likely have been three years before he flew again. Besides, he wanted to spend more time with his family. He continued to support space exploration and would have liked to see mankind well on its way to Mars in his lifetime.
Books by Michael Collins include Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space, and Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story. He also painted watercolors featuring the Florida Everglades, airplanes, and occasionally scenes related to space and space flight.
On April 28, 2021, Michael Collins’ family reported that he had died of cancer.