Carrying the Fire - Michael Collins

... 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.

Michael Collins (1974)

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 rest.

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 Slayton.

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 from Gemini.

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 in time.

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 the Eagle.

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 open-reel tape. Of course the whole descent to the 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 "High 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 budgets.

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.

Further viewing and reading

  1. The Audacity of the Apollo project. This web site.
  2. Humorous lecture by Michael Collins in 2009. 14 min.
  3. In the Shadow of the Moon - British documentary film, 1 h 40 min. Spectacular footage. Wonderfully commented in 2006 by several Apollo astronauts.
  4. Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal.
  5. NASA Oral History index page. A treasure trove for space aficionados!
  6. We went to the Moon on 16 k [computer memory]. Have you ever wondered if this is just hyperbole? You can find out here.
  7. An excellent Australian interview with Neil Armstrong in 2011. 50 min. Contrary to his public image as a somewhat shy and reserved person, this shows a relaxed, engaged and engaging man who clearly enjoyed the conversation.

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    Last edited or checked August 6, 2019.  

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