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Revisiting A Conversation With Astronaut Michael Collins, Who Died Today At 90 Years Old

Michael Collins
In this July 19, 1979 file photo, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins attends a news conference on the 10th anniversary of historic moon landing. Collins, who piloted the ship from which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left to make their historic first steps on the moon in 1969, died Wednesday, April 28, 2021, of cancer, his family said. He was 90.

Astronaut Michael Collins has died at the age of 90 after battling cancer.

Collins piloted the Apollo 11 mission that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

WESA’s Kevin Gavin spoke to Collins in 1988, about his book, “Liftoff,” shortly after the 19th anniversary of the Apollo mission.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Kevin Gavin: When you're going on a historic mission like that, was there a moment, a portion of the whole program, if you will, that you were most concerned about?

Michael Collins: Well, the flight to the moon and back, I always think of such a flight, as well as a very long and fragile daisy chain. I mean, you break any link in that chain and the whole thing is broken.

The link that I thought was the weakest and the one that worried me the most was the rendezvous process, getting Armstrong and Aldrin off the surface of the moon at exactly the right time into exactly the right orbit. Now, when that was done, the rendezvous itself was fairly simple. But had they been late, or had they wobbled up into some sort of a lopsided [situation], then I might have been able to go get. And that was the part that I was sweating out, I think, more than any other part of the flight.

Gavin: How big was the Apollo spaceship and how big was the lunar module that were hooking up and, you know, the delicate process involved?

Collins: Well, they were heavy machines because they were full of fuel. They were fairly small. The lunar module was cramped with two people inside. The command module had room for three. I was in it by myself, sort of rattling around loose, you might say, when Armstrong and Aldrin were down on the surface of the moon.

But I was overhead in an orbit 60 miles above the surface of the moon. And if they take off exactly on time, then they go up into an orbit that's 45 miles above the surface. And that difference of 15 miles is carefully calculated so that they can catch up with me at exactly the right rate. If they're late, well, then they have to go faster and faster. And the way you do that in orbit is by going lower and lower.

So they get to the point where they're just skimming the lunar mountaintops, trying to catch me because they were late getting off and had to make up the time. Then if you just one second later than that, you can't go any lower. And then that strategy suddenly reverses itself. And then they had to go as high as they could and slow down as much as they could. I had to dove down for the mountains and make an extra turn around the moon and catch them instead of vice-versa. And all this gets very complicated. And that's part of the flight that I didn't like thinking about. I just felt everything was going to work OK. And as it turned out, it did.

Gavin: Before the actual landing on the moon, you describe the 3D picture of the moon that you were seeing as you approach rather than that flat, two dimensional thing that we're used to seeing. Was it difficult to do justice in your writing of the description of that?

Collins: I think it was because the moon that you see out over your back fence looks nothing at all like the moon that we saw up close in the first place. We didn't see the moon getting bigger and bigger because one of the requirements was that we line ourselves up broadside to the sun and then rotate like a chicken on a barbecue spit. And that was necessary to keep the heat coming from the sun evenly distributed around all sides of our spacecraft.

Well, when you do that, the moon is not on your window. So for three days on the way to the moon, we did not see it. Now, when we stop this barbecue rotation and swung around and the moon came into view, it was just totally different than anything I had seen before.

It was an awesome spectacle. It filled our whole window and its belly bulged out toward us. And you could really see the that it was a sphere and not a little flat plate up there. The sunlight was cascading around its rim and then hitting the earth and bouncing back. And we were in a twilight zone that was almost an eerie sort of a purplish blue in color. It was this totally different region, a different sensation than anything any of the three of us had ever experienced before.

Gavin: When you came back to Earth, President Richard Nixon welcomed you with such comments. Has this been the greatest week in history since creation? How old were you at that point?

Collins: I was 38.

Gavin: OK, what I'm getting at is you are a man of 38, and just been part of something that no one has been part of before. After some of the initial exhilaration was gone. On a personal note, did you say, ‘I'm 38 now what do I do in a sense that can anything top this?’

Collins: I think the challenge is to is to go through the rest of your life finding interesting work, things that are going to keep your mind occupied about your future and not scratching your head and ruminating about the past and boring all your friends with the same old repetitious stories about what you used to do.

Gavin: Th first administrator of NASA, Keith Glenn, announced the idea of Project Mercury. What was the important development then going from a one-seater Mercury then to going to Gemini? What other things had to be considered then and what was the importance of really having the second astronaut along?

Gavin: Well, Project Gemini really was what answered the questions that remained after Mercury in regard to the moon. We asked: Can you keep people up in space long enough to get to the moon and back without some bad thing happening physically or physiologically to them?

The second was this question of rendezvous: Can two vehicles find each other in the darkness of space? You can't say, ‘meet me over downtown Pittsburgh.’ You need some other way of getting together. And then the third was, of course, walking on the moon, which you could not duplicate in Earth orbit, but you could go outside and get all the experience that you needed do with pressure suits and on spacewalks. So you just added up the list of choice to be done of research that had to be finished before you could go to the moon. Then it spoke for two-man rather than a one-man crew.

Gavin: Does the U.S. space program need the Soviets and vice-versa? Is it good other than diplomatic reasons to work together?

Collins: If you want to go to Mars, for example, Mars is the closest thing to a sister planet that we earthlings have. If you want to go to Mars, I think it would be nice to visit a planet in the name of all the inhabitants of this one, not just one nation, not just the Americans. Although if it had to be one nation, I would prefer that it be ours.

But even better than that, I think, or a voyage done by the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, I think it would be better to have such an expedition be done in the name of all the nations of the world. You can't really throw one crew member from every country on board because that's not possible. But to get contributions from those who have the money and the technology, the Japanese, certainly the Europeans and the Soviets and launching an international expedition.

Gavin: Are you an optimist when it comes to American space?

Collins: Oh, yes, I think so. I think it's inevitable that I know I'm not talking about tomorrow or the next day, but looking way, way, way out into the future. I think it's inevitable that we earthlings are going to leave this planet sometime and go live in orbit on the moon, on Mars, perhaps on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn.

I think we'll go out to our solar system. And I'm even optimistic enough to think that perhaps we'll figure out some way to avoid Mr. [Albert] Einstein's speed limit and leave this solar system entirely and find another one.

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