The Man Behind the Moon

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and American heroes Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking their small step for man and giant leap for mankind. There was a third man on that mission. Forgotten in the shadow of the ecstasy and adulation, astronaut Michael Collins was orbiting solo around the moon while his shipmates planted a triumphant American flag on its surface. His mission: To bring them home safely.This is the story of "the loneliest man since Adam."

They had been on their journey for three days. These modern Argonauts had travelled further than Jason, Odysseus, or Genghis Khan. They had long since rocketed past the dimension that Magellan once set as a benchmark. A quarter of a million miles into the empty space, they pushed forward into the dark nothingness in a ship in the shape of an oversized washing drum stuffed with what was then state-of-the-art electronics.

Down on earth, the excited frenzy had subsided as their Saturn rocket rose into the sky, "this slim angelic mysterious ship … white as a shrine of the Madonna," as one chronicler enthusiastically described. Mankind again pursued earthly things. With one eye glued to the television screen, it waited for the great moment that had been announced as the entry into a new age.

President John F. Kennedy, dead for half an eternity, had once commanded the three astronauts: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

The decade was almost over. And the goal was now right in front of them. They orbited it like an eagle its prey.

The space explorers carried white bags with personal bits and pieces such as crosses, medallions, and small flags which they would later become precious memorabilia. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had two bags each — one for their giant ride in the Command Module, and another for their descent to the moon. Michael Collins, the third man on board, had only one.

Armstrong and Aldrin donned their pressure suits and slipped through the hatch into the Lunar Module. All they had to do was close the hatch above their heads. The Eagle was ready to go. "You guys take care," Collins said as he cut the umbilical cord between Columbia and Eagle. "See you later," Armstrong called back.

Collins looked through his porthole at the Eagle. It sank down like a golden bug, upside down, his thin legs stretched out like antennas. In him rode the ancient dream of mankind. In a few hours, Armstrong and Aldrin would fulfill it. “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” as the slogan of the popular 1960’s Star Trek space adventure series proclaimed.

And Collins? He was given the role of orbiting the moon until his two colleagues returned from their heroic deed — an on-call space taxi, one might say.

Press reporters had swarmed Armstrong and Aldrin at the press briefing before the historic departure. Collins was questioned at the end, his statements would be the first to fall victim to the editing scissors.

A journalist asked him: "Colonel Collins, to people who are not astronauts, you would appear to have the most frustrating job on the mission: not going all the way. How do you feel about that?" Collins proudly replied, "I don't feel in the slightest bit frustrated. I’m going 99.9 percent of the way there, and that suits me just fine.” Nobody believed him. Everyone knew that the remaining 0.1 percent made all the difference. A moon ride without a moon landing was like a Coitus Interruptus.

"As he spins around the earth, the moon behaves like an obedient subject in front of his king - he constantly turns his face to the earth and never shows his back," wrote the mission's most gifted chronicler, writer Norman Mailer. The Eagle made good progress on its descent to the moon’s face. For Collins, the journey behind the moon’s back now began.

Suddenly, it became quiet in his Columbia capsule. Collins saw the earth disappear behind the moon. Radio contact with Houston broke off. Pumps worked, valves opened and closed. The rhythmic breathing of the mother ship had a calming effect. Sometimes, Collins dozed off briefly like a baby in its mother’s womb. 

Collins dreamed of the mission of his two colleagues. It was to become a ray of hope for a wounded nation. After the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the defeats in the space race against the Soviets, the continuing protests against the Vietnam war — the nation longed for renewal. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins embodied the America of pioneers. They were bearers of hope against the unruly youth of the sit-ins, dropouts, and potheads. The precision of their Apollo 11 was a vivid alternative to the aimless Easy Riders.

The astronauts were their own breed. They spoke in codes, in technical terms, in official sounding acronyms. Their communication was stripped to raw functionality. Commander Armstrong, "surrendered words about as happily as a hound allowed meat to be pulled out of his teeth,” complained Mailer.

Collins, however, was different. Collins was cool. Collins was ironic and self aware as if he "were playing a fine woodwind which had the merriment and the sadness of those American expatriates for whom culture began in the Year One of (Hemingway’s) The Sun Also Rises.” Born in Rome, the son of a general and military attaché, he was already a worldly traveler. Round face with a high forehead, he flashed a knowing smile. With Collins, one could imagine being regaled with adventurous tales over beers at the local pub. "What a joy it could have been to cover this moon landing with a man who gave neat quotes."

On board the Columbia Collins awoke. The radio crackled. At the edge of the moon, the earth reappeared. Its inhabitants were in awe. The eagle had landed. The first man had set his foot on the moon. "A small step for a man, a great leap for mankind." Collins had missed the historic moment.

The stars and stripes banner was now emblazoned on the pale moon face. Kings and heads of state queued to congratulate President Nixon. Walter Cronkite, TV legend and national master of ceremonies, exclaimed: “I guess this day has given us our biggest story.”

The place where Armstrong and Aldrin had landed was anointed the Sea of Tranquility. It was a Las Vegas compared to the ocean of loneliness in which Collins was diving again.

 

“How hard a thing it is to say / What was this forest savage, rough, and stern / Which in the very thought renews the fear.”

 

Dante had Vergil as his guide when he descended into the Inferno. Collins had mission control in Houston. But now it fell silent again. For Collins, it was relief. “Mission control was jacking all the time, and anytime I had behind the moon was a kind of blessed period. I kind of enjoyed it back there, yeah.”

Down on terra firma, Nixon took the floor. One half of the split TV screen showed the president at his desk. The other half Armstrong and Aldrin, motionless, standing on both sides of the American flag. ¨

 

“Hello, Neil and Buzz. I’m talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House, and this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House... For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the peoples on this earth are truly one. One in their pride in what you have done.”

 

Thus spoke Nixon. Collins, whom he didn't mention at all, had already disappeared behind the moon for the third time.

Aristotle stated, “Man is a social creature.” Darwin added, "We see it in his aversion to loneliness.” And Nietzsche mercilessly described what happens to the one who separated from society: “Dost thou remember, O Zarathustra? When thy stillest hour came and drove thee forth from thyself… When it disgusted thee with all thy waiting and silence, and discouraged thy humble courage: THAT was forsakenness!”

Discoverers, commanders, and the mentally deranged all experience bitter loneliness. National hero Charles Lindbergh was convinced not even these grey depths could match the porch black loneliness Collins would experience behind the moon. The conqueror of the Atlantic wrote a letter to Collins warning that the astronaut was “to experience a loneliness unknown to man.”

Collins rejected the thought. “Lindbergh’s flight was much tougher. He was all by himself, he had no one to talk to, to help him out, to help him with his route. He couldn’t go to sleep. He would crash into the ocean. He had bad weather all his path.”

For a fourth time, Collins appeared from behind the moon. He thought, “The moon’s surface seems very inhospitable, forbidding almost. I didn’t not sense any great invitation from the part of the moon to come in its domain.”

His native home America meanwhile resembled a collective party hut. The television station CBS reported about a "strange, almost tribalistic ritual" in New York's Central Park. Several thousand people visited the "Moon-In" in pouring rain. CBS had built a gigantic Eidophor screen. People stood ankle-deep in the mud to watch the walk on the moon.

"Why aren't they cheering?" called Pat Collins at home in front of the television when she saw her husband's colleagues tripping on the moon. "That's why they don't let a woman fly to the moon. She would jump and scream and cry."

Alone in his ship, Collins listened to the pumps breathing. He never turned on the TV in his capsule. Sometimes he filmed himself. He had been alone in space for 15 hours, now. He had orbited the moon seven times. Seven times he had dived into complete solitude.

The public affairs officer of the moon mission, who had zealously choreographed Armstrong and Aldrin’s press coverage, now devoted himself to the third man. But words failed the professional story teller. All he could offer was the meager observation: “Not since Adam has any human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing during these 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 question of his loneliness would haunt Collins for the next 50 years — a challenge to admit defeat. Collins' answers became increasingly defiant. "I sometimes even prefer to be alone,” he said. Later, he would even strike a religious tone. He spoke of his capsule as a "mini-cathedral.”

He insisted that he had never felt fear. “What you have instead of fear is worry. You have worry from takeoff to landing. You can never really relax.”

The longer his two colleagues were on the moon, the more Collins remembered Kennedy's marching orders: “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” The last words echoed in his head like a warning sign. "Safely." "Returning." “To the earth.” That was Collins' task.

He did later admit to “a secret terror to leave my colleagues on the moon and return alone to earth.”

Nixon was prepared for such an outcome. Two days before the moon landing, he had recorded on camera a speech to the nation. With a grave expression, he eulogized:

 

“These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding… they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.”

 

No one was more plagued by the unknown than the man behind the moon. In the event of a "moon disaster," as the White House script called the catastrophe, Collins could not have done anything but helplessly watch the drama from 60 miles above the moon. If Eagle did successfully lift off but didn't manage to dock at Columbia, Collins would be responsible. Every chain is as weak as its weakest link. "Believe me,” he would later say, “I've spent a lot of time worrying about this weakest link. Could it be me?"

Around Collins neck hung a bag with a manual listing 18 options for the rendezvous. What if they all went wrong? How would Collins handle it? “First, I was not going to commit suicide. I would be coming home by myself. I would be a marked man for the rest of my life.”

Collins, who even managed to wrestle a bit of serenity from his brutal role in space, a marked man? One did not dare imagine it.

Collins didn't need his manual. Less than four hours after the liftoff from the moon, Collins saw the Eagle emerge from the darkness of space. He didn't even feel it docking at Columbia. Armstrong's and Aldrin's suits were vacuumed of moon dust, the hatch was opened. After 27 hours and 51 minutes, the three were reunited.

“I grabbed Buzz by both ears and I was gonna kiss him on the forehead… and I said, ‘nahhh, that’s not a very good thing to do somehow’, so I slapped him on back or did something.” Stoic, Collins did not utter a word to his shipmates in that redeeming moment. He didn’t even utter a sigh of relief. “You had no time to sit around and reminisce … you had to come home.”

 

PS:

Michael Collins "emerged from the post-Apollo years relatively unscathed" as the Guardian reported. "Aldrin lapsed into alcoholism and depression, while Armstrong became a virtual recluse. Both men subsequently divorced. By contrast, Collins - shaded from the glare of publicity - has avoided such personal traumas“. Collins lived with his wife, Patricia, until her death in April 2014. The couple have three grown-up children.

 

Michael Collins' quotes in the text are taken from numerous interviews he has given over the past 50 years, as well as from: Norman Mailer, MoonFire, 50th Anniversary Edition. The book compiles the reportage Mailer published between 1969 and 1970 in Life magazine.

The Kalb Report: A Conversation with Astronaut Michael Collins

BBC HARDtalk

In the Shadow of the Moon

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