The Tug of Tranquility

With all the commemoration this week of the Apollo XI moon landing 45 years ago, one story has gone underreported: that of Michael Collins.

Collins, now 83 and recently widowed, had a the kind of career beyond the capabilities of most of us. A West Pointer who retired as an Air Force brigadier general, he had a successful career as a test pilot, then was named the founding director of the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum. His role on the moon mission was to pilot the command module in lunar orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked the surface. Collins’s job might seem less glamorous, but the reason he drew that assignment is that, of the three, he had the most experience actually piloting a spacecraft.

Aboard Gemini X in 1966, he spent three straight days crammed in a cabin the roughly the size of a Smart car’s, sharing space with mission commander John Young. I don’t care how well you get along with somebody or how well you’re trained, that’s got to get on your nerves after a while. Maybe that’s why Collins excused himself to go for a spacewalk — twice, becoming the first person to ever repeat that event.

I conjecture that Collins, as disappointed as he might have been that he wouldn’t walk on the moon, actually looked forward to the solitude of flying in space alone in 1969.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what he had to say:

“Not since Adam has any human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing during this 47 minutes of each lunar revolution when he’s behind the Moon with no one to talk to except his tape recorder aboard Columbia.”

The weird part is that he seems to be talking about himself in the third person. That’s not the only explanation but, as the astronauts said, “A-OK.”

Each of Collins’s orbits took about two hours of which, by his own reckoning, he was completely out of communication range for 47 minutes. He did this 10 times while the lunar module stood inside the Sea of Tranquility.

What does a man possibly think about under those circumstances?

Well, the first time around, he’s probably too busy with mission requirements to think much about anything. But then what?

“Neil, Buzz, I’m about to fly out of range again. I’ll talk to you in another 47 minutes.”

Dum-dee-dum-dee-dum. Maybe take a quick nap.

“… another 47 …”

Tummy’s growling. Maybe some freeze-dried beef stew, then wash that down with some Tang.

“… another 47 …”

Mmm … Tang.

‘”… another 47 …”

Mmm … ‘tang.

“… another 47 …”

Really, what goes through a man’s mind?

Again, let’s hear from the astronaut himself. According to his autobiography, Carrying the Fire, Collins reported feeling not loneliness, but rather “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.”

I’ll take him at his word.

“… another 47 …”

Imagine what it’s like, knowing that there is no physical, possible way you will be interrupted for the next 47 minutes. There are only two people on the planet 50 miles below you, and they are way the hell on the other side of it. From there, you have to fly for three days at 25,000 mph. Hell, it takes a second and a half for even a beam of light to traverse the distance.

“… another 47 …”

Nobody’s going to knock on the door. The kids are not coming home early from school. Mrs. Collins’s bridge game is not going to be unexpectedly canceled. Even the dog isn’t going to sniff you out and see if you’d be willing to take him to the park.

“… another 47 …”

It’s not as if history is going to care. All the press — and thus all the liberal arts academics — care about is the intrepid hero. But Neil is a modest kind of fellow, sort of shy and tongue-tied. Not made for celebrity, he’s just going to go back to Ohio and teach engineering. Still, his stooge Buzz is the worst kind of media whore — good for getting funding for the program, sure, but not the kind of thing that appeals to most serious test pilots. And that’s fine. Let Buzz run for the microphones. The more the public fixates on him, the less concerned they’ll be about “Mike Collins.”

“… another 47 …”

Not for nothing, but all the suction in the whole, entire universe is at one man’s disposal.

“… another 47 …”

Now approaching Tranquility!

So, men of Planet Earth, it is right and proper for each of us to stand up and salute Michael Collins, who came where no man has come before!

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