... I have been places and done
things you simply would not believe, I
feel like saying. I have dangled from a cord a hundred
miles up. I have seen the earth eclipsed by the moon,
and enjoyed it. ... Although I have no intention of
spending the rest of my life looking backward, I do
have this secret, this precious thing, that I will always
carry with me.
All set for Glenn's flight,
February 20, 1962.
From the dawn of the space age in 1957 right up to the final Apollo
flight in 1972, I lived and breathed human space flight.
At the time of Gagarin's flight in April 1961, I was on a tour
of some major Swedish industrial companies with my class from the
Royal Institute of Technology (in Stockholm) and had to follow the
news through the regular media. Three weeks later I listened to
live coverage of Shepard's suborbital flight on the Voice of America,
which remained my preferred news channel throughout the Mercury,
Gemini and Apollo programs. Another three weeks after Shepard's
flight, Kennedy vowed to land a man on the Moon and return him
safely to the Earth before this decade is out.
In July 1961, I confounded my parents by refusing to leave our
car in the medieval German town of Tübingen during a vacation
trip to Italy, so as not to miss radio coverage of Grissom's suborbital
flight. On the way back I got news in Copenhagen of Titov's flight,
the second Soviet orbital flight. This was just a week before the
Berlin Wall was erected.
Then in October 1961, I participated in a flight chartered by the
Swedish Interplanetary Society to the International Astronautical
Congress in Washington D.C. and a meeting of the American Rocket
Society in New York. I stayed in the home of Warren North (a test
pilot and engineer who later rose to chief of flight crew operations
in Houston) and was brought by him to NASA HQ, where my eyes popped
reading door signs such as "Manned spaceflight", "Lunar and Planetary
programs", "Nuclear Propulsion", "Life Sciences" etc. How I wished
that my former detractors in high shool, who used to call me "the
little man from the Moon", had been there to witness this!
During the following years, my fascination deepened with the rapid
stream of events. Glenn's orbital flight occurred in 1962. Three
more Mercury flights followed. In July 1962 the unexpected decision
to use lunar orbit rendezvous for Apollo was announced. Ten manned
Gemini flights were conducted in 1965-66, primarily to demonstrate
rendezvous techniques and the feasibility of flights in weightlessness
over a week or more. The Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter unmanned
missions gave us an idea of what the lunar surface was like.
In parallel, some 400,000 people were engaged in the development
and testing of the new generation of spacecraft and rockets needed
to land men on the Moon. I devoured magazines such as "Missiles
and Rockets" and "Aviation Week". There was great
optimism, even talk of landing on the Moon as early as 1967 if all
went well. (I doubt that that would have been possible under any
circumstances.) The Apollo 1 fire in January 1967 put such dreams
To the present generation it may be hard to comprehend the fascination
that human space flight held back in the 1960s. This is understandable
after 40 years of "going around in circles" and well over
500 astronauts having flown in space. We have all seen groups of
seven or ten astronauts bobbing in weightlessness during televised
press conferences from the International Space Station. It is difficult
to get excited over yet another such scene. And even in the sixties
a great deal of the interest had to do with "the space race",
effectively turning the exploration of space into a football game.
Even Kennedy saw it mostly from that angle.
Earthrise on Apollo 8.
In my case, the appeal of human spaceflight lay first and foremost
in the adventure. What would it feel like to fall endlessly in orbit?
What might it be like to eat, drink and sleep in weightlessness?
What would the launch feel like? And re-entering the atmosphere
at a deceleration force of up to 10 or 12 times gravity? What would
the Earth look like from space? How would it feel to go around the
world in 90 minutes and see the sun rise and set some 15 times in
a day? And what would it be like to reach escape velocity and watch
the Earth recede until it seemed just a small ball? And to land
on the Moon... Surely you would have to ask yourself "Am I
dreaming?" Would you sink into several feet of dust? And what
about moving around in the Moon's weak gravity? And to view the
Earth from the Moon, what would that experience be like?
Above all, there was the staggering fact that after 4 billion years
of evolution, man would set foot on another celestial body during
my own brief moment on the Earth. And that this might be the first
step toward human exploration of the solar system, and ultimately,
perhaps, our own galaxy. How could you react to such a perspective
with anything but awe?
It is unfortunate that most of the Apollo astronauts seem to lack
a literary talent. This may be a natural consequence of their background
as test pilots, and the culture that has developed in their profession:
"the Right Stuff", whether by design or as a natural consequence
of the skills needed to test aircraft. You want to be precise and
controlled rather than gushing and spontaneous. You need to be acutely
aware of the dangers of your work - but without dwelling on them.
In my search for accounts of what it was like to be an Apollo astronaut,
I have read a number of books (some of them ghostwritten), but in
my opinion none of them comes close to Carrying the Fire
in quality. Re-reading it 40 years on just confirms my opinion.
Its author Michael Collins was a member of the Apollo 11 crew, which
makes it especially interesting for obvious reasons. He stayed in
lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface.
Collins claims to bore easily, and to have written for an audience
that bores easily. And in fact his book sparkles!
He briefly describes how and why he became a test pilot, and what
that was like, before telling us about the astronaut selection process,
and how he took up his duties at the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center
in Houston in 1963 shortly efter the final Mercury flight. He participated
in the Gemini program, where his particular area of responsibility
was space suit development, until he was nominated to the backup
crew for Gemini 7 and flew on Gemini 10.
Mike Collins and Deke
Collins offers an interesting discussion of how the astronauts
were assigned to the various Gemini and Apollo missions. This was
of course a subject of intense interest to the astronauts. The man
in charge was Deke Slayton, the only Mercury astronaut who did not
get to fly in space (for medical reasons). Slayton had a difficult
task. First of all, each astronaut must have the skills needed for
each mission, although the tough selection process meant that there
were few problems in that area. Except for medical reasons and deaths,
all the astronauts in the first two groups flew in space. (Collins
belonged to the third group to be selected.) Then there was the
criterion of seniority and experience. You did not want to send
an all-rookie crew to the Moon. Crews should be compatible: you
would not want to have two astronauts share a small Gemini capsule
for a week or two if they disliked each other. In addition, there
were even more subjective aspects. Would the astronaut make a good
ambassador for NASA and the United States? Would Slayton also face
political pressure in choosing between Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps
and civilian astronauts? Would those astronauts who, for various
reasons, had more interactions with Slayton be favored? "What
does he think of me??"
To create some stability and confidence in the process, Slayton
introduced a system where the backup crew for each mission would
be assigned as the primary crew for the third following mission.
There were many exceptions to this rule due to accidents (three
astronauts were killed in aircraft crashes, three in the Apollo
fire on the ground) and to medical problems, but in general the
system was applied and proved successful. The interesting point
made by Collins is that blind luck was an important element in deciding
the composition of the crew that would make the first lunar landing.
The Agena vehicle viewed
During the Gemini 10 mission, Collins conducted an ambitious "space
walk", floating over to a previously launched unmanned Agena
vehicle. He vividly describes the difficulties. His colleague John
Young had to keep both the Agena and Collins in view to avoid a
collision, while making sure that Collins was clear of any hot gas
fired by the Gemini's thrusters. Collins had to solve all the difficulties
of grappling with the Agena rocket in zero-g while encased in a
clumsy space suit and connected to the Gemini spacecraft with a
long and stiff umbilical cable.
By the way, I really dislike the term "space
walk". To me, "walk" is something you do on the ground
using your legs. "Float" or even "swim" would
be closer, but a new verb is clearly needed. Even NASA's phrase
"EVA" (for Extra-Vehicular Activity) is not very satisfactory,
and they use it both for "space walks" and activities
on the Moon.
Collins had been assigned to fly on Apollo 8, but was dropped due
to a spinal injury and had been replaced by Jim Lovell. He learned
of the decision to fly Apollo 8 to lunar orbit shortly after the
first Apollo crew had returned from their checkout flight in Earth
orbit in October 1968.
During the Apollo 8 mission at the end of 1968 I stayed with my
grandparents, where the family had assembled for Christmas. This
was the first circumlunar flight, the one where the astronauts read
the Genesis chapter as a Christmas greeting to all of us on the
good Earth. In a way it was the most momentous of all the Apollo
flights: the first time that humans escaped the Earth's gravity.
I was deeply moved to hear the brief sentence You are go for
TLI, giving the green light for the crew to inject the spacecraft
into a trajectory that would take them to the Moon. And I got a
good laugh when Collins, who was a Capcom (capsule communicator)
at Ground Control, forwarded a question from his son to the crew:
Who is driving? - The answer was: I guess Isaac Newton
is doing most of the driving!
On Christmas Eve, when they emerged from the far side of the Moon
at the predicted time and reported that the lunar orbit insertion
burn had been successful, I leapt with excitement at the mature
age of 29, hit the doorpost and started bleeding profusely from
the top of my head! A few days later, as I was driving with my cousin
Mariann, I looked up and saw the Moon. Suddenly the full realization
hit me: people were actually on the way home from there! I eagerly
awaited the photos they had taken. One in particular, the Earthrise
picture, was awesome in the most literal sense!
Shortly after the success of Apollo 8, the crew for Apollo 11 was
announced. Collins was excited to be selected, of course, but he
did not give the crew more than a 50-50 chance to be the first one
to attempt a landing. In the event of any problems on Apollo 9 (a
test of the Lunar Module in Earth orbit) or Apollo 10, the first
landing attempt would probably be assigned to Apollo 12. Alternatively,
the dress rehearsal for the first landing planned for Apollo 10
might be declared unnecessary, and Apollo 10 allowed to make the
first landing attempt (just as it had been decided that the successful
flight of Apollo 7 in Earth orbit was sufficient to clear Apollo
8 to fly to the Moon).
One of Collins' amusing observations is that Aldrin
and Armstrong both were near the top of the alphabet. (He does not
add his own name.) Is that why they were successful? For years,
as little kids in school and big kids in the service, they had been
first to queue up, first to get the information. - When I went
to school, teachers often checked our homework in alphabetical order.
But occasionally they would start from the end just to keep us on
our toes. I have sometimes wondered what effect the resulting insecurity
may have had on my character :-)
Apollo 10 in May 1969 carried a Lunar Module which was separated
from the Command Module in lunar orbit and descended to just 15
km over the lunar surface. I remember Tom Stafford's excitement
when he could identify landmarks as they swept over the surface.
There was some additional excitement when the astronauts briefly
experienced wild gyrations upon separating from the descent stage
of the Lunar Module, but I did not notice it at the time. - I created
a minor sensation in my football team in Linköping by cutting
post-game celebrations with the lame excuse that I had to go home
to monitor the Apollo 10 mission.
Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong.
Collins gives a detailed and exciting narrative of the months leading
up to Apollo 11. As the launch approached he was training more or
less around the clock, with particular emphasis on the complex scenarios
for the rendezvous between his command module "Columbia"
and the lunar module "Eagle", depending on whether the
landing had to be aborted or was successful, and whether the launch
of the Eagle went according to plan or resulted in a non-nominal
lunar orbit. (If the Eagle did not reach orbit, its crew was doomed.)
- Aldrin and Armstrong were training separately in the Lunar Module
simulator with emphasis on the landing. Not all landing attempts
in the simulator were successful, and on one occasion Aldrin was
particularly incensed over Armstrong's failure to abort the landing
One of the training tools was the LLRV (Lunar Landing Research
Vehicle), "the flying bedstead", which allowed Armstrong
to practice landings. On one flight, a malfunction forced Armstrong
to bail out just before the vehicle crashed. Word of the
crash spread quickly, and in the afternoon Al Bean walked into
Armstrong's office to ask "Did you have to punch out of the
LLRV?" Armstrong's response was "Yeah", and he continued
to shuffle the papers on his desk. Collins reflects that most men
who had been a second or two from a fiery death would have taken
the afternoon off and guzzled a beer or two.
The launch itself must have been scarier than Collins lets on,
although he points out the benefits of having previously flown on
the Titan II booster for Gemini. The Saturn V vibrated more, and
Space Shuttle pilots who have also flown on the Saturn V claim that
the Shuttle feels like riding "with an electric motor"
by comparison. - Collins gives an exciting report of what the flight
to the Moon was like; lunar orbit insertion and separation from
During the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the whole family including
my grandparents were watching the Swedish TV broadcast, while I
was sitting in an adjoining room listening to the Voice of America
transmitter in Greece. I recorded the key moments on tape. Of course
the whole descent to he surface was dramatic, but a particularly
tense moment came at an altitude of 10 km, when Armstrong reported
a computer program alarm. My heart sank. I thought they would have
to abort the landing attempt. But after less than half a minute,
the reassuring words came: We are go on that alarm. Additional
alarms followed but could be ignored. The computer was overloaded
but had been programmed to ignore lower-priority tasks. (It seems
that Aldrin had switched the rendez-vous radar on prematurely.)
My heart rate went up further when ground control announced 60
seconds of fuel remaining, and then 30 seconds. To my relief, the
landing occurred with twenty seconds to spare. - Actually, the countdown
to zero referred to a decision point when Armstrong would have to
decide whether he could land within the next twenty seconds. If
not, he would have had to abort at that point.
The Apollo 11 landing
site viewed in 2012 by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Around 3 o'clock in the morning, Swedish time, Armstrong climbed
down the ladder to the surface. It was a beautiful summer morning
and the sun was already up. Only my grandfather had gone to bed.
As Armstrong said: I'm going to step off the LM now, I listened
intently. There had been much speculation about what his first words
on the lunar surface might be. Armstrong said: That's one small
step for man. That's perfect, I thought, before he continued:
One giant leap for mankind - thus turning a truly memorable
understated phrase, that could easily have been spontaneous, into
a bombastic proclamation. Later Armstrong insisted that he had said
... for a man rather than for man. The "a"
may have been lost due to static or to the microphone being voice-actuated.
(Collins claims that when he asked his daughter what she would have
said, had she been first on the Moon, she responded: Does this
suit make me look fat?)
Collins: "The best sight of my life:
Neil and Buzz returning!."
Collins has often been asked how it felt to be literally "the
loneliest man in history" in the Command Module while Armstrong
and Aldrin were on the lunar surface. He was of course fully aware
of his unique predicament: I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely
isolated from any known life. ... I feel this powerfully - not as
fear or loneliness - but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction,
confidence, almost exultation. His deepest fear was that his
colleagues might not make it back to Columbia, and that he would
be forced to return alone. If they fail to rise from the surface,
or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am going
home forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.
After his flight to the Moon, Collins quickly decided to give up
his career as an astronaut. Under Deke Slayton's system he might
have been selected to be the commander of the backup crew for Apollo
14, and become the commander on Apollo 17, which turned out to be
the final mission, and where he would have landed on the Moon. But
the strain would have been too high on his family, and he did not
look forward to additional years of spending most of his nights
in hotel rooms. He also realized that he could not avoid a life
as "a walking monument" (my words - not his) and he might
as well make the best of it. He soon became the Director of the
Smithsonian Institute after a short interlude in the U.S. State
Department. - Frank Borman made a similar decision after Apollo
8. John Young, on the other hand, chose to go to the Moon a second
time after Apollo 10 and landed on Apollo 16. Young stayed on and
commanded the enormously risky first flight of the Space Shuttle
in 1981 and flew one further Shuttle mission.
In a final chapter Collins reflects on the significance of Apollo
11 and the effects of the flight on himself. He is not above offering
us a few verses of his own poetry. (He also quotes the famous poem
Flight", dear to all pilots, earlier in the book.)
The Lunar Roving Vehicle
on Apollo 15.
There were six further Apollo missions to the Moon, five of them
successful. Apollo 13 suffered an explosion on the way to the Moon,
and just barely made it back home, using the Lunar Module as a lifeboat
most of the way.
The addition of a battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle on the
last three missions was an impressive engineering feat. Just folding
it so it would fit in a Lunar Module compartment, and designing
the release mechanisms so they could be operated by astronauts in
space suits were real challenges, not to mention weight and power
Working outside Apollo
16 over 300,000 km from home.
Apollo 16 held a special interest for me in that an astronaut,
Ken Mattingly, was going to venture outside the spacecraft on the
way home to Earth in order to retrieve a film cassette that had
been used for photography from lunar orbit. Just imagine, floating
in space 300 000 km from the Earth! It reminded me of a similar
scene in the movie "Destination Moon" [now
on YouTube, see 52 min 30 sec into the
film], which I had seen as a child in 1951 or 1952, where
an astronaut drifted away and had to be saved by a colleague who
used an oxygen bottle as a rocket motor. - Unfortunately, Mattingly
appears to have been too engrossed in his task to give much thought
to his surroundings (or lack thereof!), and the light was too bright
to allow him to see the stars.
My future colleague Sven Grahn
successfully tracked Apollo 17 together with some friends in
Florida using a 9-m radio astronomy antenna.
Audacity of the Apollo project. This web site.
lecture by Michael Collins in 2009. 14 min.
the Shadow of the Moon - British documentary film, 1 h 40
min. Spectacular footage. Wonderfully commented in 2006 by several
11 Lunar Surface Journal.
Oral History index page. A treasure trove for space aficionados!
- We went to the Moon on 16 k [computer
memory]. Have you ever wondered if this is just hyperbole?
You can find out here.