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'Fresh Air' Remembers Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Collins piloted the Apollo 11 command module as it orbited the moon above them, waiting to take Armstrong and Aldrin back to Earth. Collins died Wednesday at the age of 90 from cancer. Today, we'll listen back to our 1988 interview with him.

Collins was raised in a distinguished military family. He graduated from West Point in 1952, became a jet fighter pilot, a test pilot, and eventually one of the astronauts chosen to participate in the Apollo mission to the moon. Before piloting Apollo 11, Collins piloted the Gemini 10 flight and walked in space, attached to his capsule only by a high-tech umbilical cord. In doing so, he was the first astronaut to walk from a spacecraft to another object in space - in this case, a rocket left orbiting from an earlier Gemini mission.

After he retired from the space program in 1970, Collins briefly worked as an assistant secretary of state for public affairs, a position he described as a plush purgatory. He felt more fulfilled in his next job as director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Collins wrote a bestselling autobiography called "Carrying The Fire." During the Apollo 11 mission, he said his big fear was not being able to reconnect with his crewmates after their moonwalk, meaning he would have to return to Earth without them. Let's hear the moment when he's talking to mission control after Armstrong and Aldrin have returned safely to the command module.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How's it feel up there to have some company?

MICHAEL COLLINS: Damn good, I'll tell you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll bet. I bet you'd almost be talking to yourself up there after 10 REVs or so.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Commander.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Roger.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.

COLLINS: No, no. It's a happy home up here. It'd be nice to have some company. As a matter of fact, it'd be nice to have a couple hundred million Americans up here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Roger. Well, they were with you in spirit.

COLLINS: Let them see what they're getting for their money.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Roger. Well, they were with you in spirit, anyway - at least that many.

DAVIES: When Terry spoke with Michael Collins, he'd written a book about the U.S. space program called "Liftoff."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: In the very beginning of your new book, "Liftoff," you describe how it feels when a technician snaps the helmet down into the neck ring. Would you describe that for us?

COLLINS: Well, that's when you sort of say goodbye to the world because even though you're still on the surface, you can no longer smell or really touch or even hear something unless it's electronically piped in. So when that neck ring goes click, click and locks into place, you're hermetically sealed. And your space voyage has really begun then, even though you're still standing on the ground.

GROSS: When you were strapped down in July of 1969, waiting to head for the moon, and you heard the countdown, what were you thinking about when you heard the countdown?

COLLINS: I don't like countdowns. I don't like - I think you're nervous enough without someone yelling in your ear, 10, nine, eight, seven. I think what they ought to do instead of having those backwards numbers is have someone with a sweet voice like yours, Terry, say, hey, I think it's about time to go.

GROSS: Now, are you serious about that? I mean, would you really - I can't tell if that's just what you're saying, or if you really think that they should change that because the countdown causes a lot of extra attention for the astronauts.

COLLINS: No. I - no, no, no. I'm kidding. But to be serious, I think it's totally unnecessary as far as the crew's concerned to tell them every last second preceding. I mean, we know. We have a clock right there in front of us. We know pretty much when the thing is going to go. But it's a small point. Either way they want to do it is fine with me.

GROSS: I'm really interested in the sensation of taking off. I'm thinking - just when you go up in an airplane, your ears lock. What happens to your body when you're propelled into space at this incredibly high velocity?

COLLINS: Well, the motors are very, very powerful, but they're lifting a gigantic weight so that when you first leave the launch pad - and you can see this on your television screen - the thing doesn't, you know, disappear instantly. It's a very slow and stately ride at the beginning. Then the thing is that the engines keep churning away at full speed. The fuel tanks begin to empty so that the weight is decreasing, the power remains the same, and then you really begin to accelerate. It's as if a giant hand were pushed down on your chest. And you find it very difficult to move. You can't really move your arms or legs very well. And even your breathing gets a little bit forced.

GROSS: When you were heading toward the moon, it was Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who were going to walk on the moon. And you were going to be in the control room circling the moon as they did their walk. Why was it you who was chosen to stay in the command capsule?

COLLINS: Gee, that's something that evolved over a long period of time. I became a specialist and the mother ship, the command module. Aldrin had been an expert in rendezvous. And Neil Armstrong was the most experienced test pilot among our astronaut group. So these sort of specialized skills of ours, the three of us, fit together nicely. But it was something that developed over a long period of time. It wasn't that all of a sudden one Friday morning, someone said, you, you and you, and you're going to do this, and you're going to do that, and you're going to do the other.

GROSS: When you were alone in the capsule and they had taken off, what happened? Did two capsules break apart so that they could go to the moon while you stayed where you were?

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. The machines were quite specialized. The one that I was in, which was called Columbia, was the base camp, you might say, and the one that made the final approach and landing was called Eagle. And it was a specialized machine, had two parts. The bottom half of it, which had the landing gear, stayed on the surface of the moon, is still there, and it acted sort of as a launch pad for the top half. The top half blasted off from the surface of the moon, came back up and found me in orbit overhead. And then we dumped. We just jettisoned, left old Eagle in orbit around the moon, and the three of us came home in Columbia.

GROSS: Now, you confess in your new book that your big fear when you were alone in the command capsule was that you wouldn't be able to make contact with the other astronauts and you'd have to leave without them.

COLLINS: Well, that's certainly true. I think a trip to the moon and back is a long and fragile chain of events. I think of it almost as a daisy chain. Any one link in that chain can break the entire sequence. But of all the links, the one that clearly, to me, was the most complicated and the most hazardous was the rendezvous, bringing them back up from the surface of the moon and having us meet at the proper time and place and join and go back home together.

GROSS: So when you were alone, how did you occupy your mind to prevent yourself from obsessing with fear that you wouldn't be able to hook up again? Or was that not a problem?

COLLINS: Oh, I had a lot to do. I had to - you know, I had to get the newspaper in, put the cat out, make sure the fireplace was in good shape.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COLLINS: I had a lot of a lot of housekeeping chores to do. The command module, Columbia, was a very large and complicated machine. And you have to keep paying attention to it, make sure all the temperatures, pressures and so on are within limits and that the thing is humming along in good shape. So that took a fair amount of my time. The rest of it, I'd have to say, I really enjoyed. It was wonderful to have an occasional break from the constant chatter on the radio and get off behind the moon and the utter and complete silence of being the only human being on that side of that planet.

GROSS: And this is the dark side, the side we don't see from Earth.

COLLINS: Yeah, it's the far side, the back side. Sometimes, it's dark. Sometimes, it's light. It depends on the angle to the sun. But regardless of light or dark, it's utterly quiet, completely serene. I knew that over on the other side, there were 3 billion on that funny-looking little planet out there and two on the surface of the moon. But where I was, that was all - just me.

GROSS: How did you know that it was going to work, that you were going to be able to meet up and return together? I mean...

COLLINS: Well, I did not know.

GROSS: When was that moment when you knew, this is it? We've made it. We've made it.

COLLINS: Well, I did not know. I was worried about it. It's - the rendezvous process is a relatively straightforward one, provided everything goes exactly right. But if, for example, they don't take off from the moon on time, if they're late by a few seconds or a minute, then all kinds of bad things start happening, and you have to change your entire strategy for bringing the two vehicles together. Likewise, if their gyros, let's say - their gyroscopes were tilted a little bit and they went up into some kind of a lopsided orbit, I might be able to go get them, and I might not. I had some extra fuel on board, but it's very costly of fuel to change your orbit much, especially to change the direction of your orbit.

And so there were just a lot of unknowns, in my mind, at least. And therefore, I was pleased beyond measure to see them coming, like, right down the centerline of the highway below me. I could see that from the - from my computer and from the information coming from their radar that things were going well. And as they got closer and closer, I started feeling better and better and more and more confident that we were going to carry the whole thing off.

GROSS: You wrote that when they returned, you wanted to give Buzz a big smooch on the forehead. And then you were too embarrassed, so you just shook his hand (laughter).

COLLINS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn't - I wanted to greet him like a parent might greet an errant child who'd been out late, and you're so worried about where they are. But when they finally appear, you're just delighted. You give them a big hug.

GROSS: You know, all of us got to see the moonwalk on television. Did you get to see any of it on a monitor while you were in space?

COLLINS: No, I had no way of seeing what was going on. I could talk to them. I had two different ways of talking to them while they were on the surface. One was, when I was overhead, I could speak to them directly for a couple of minutes. And then when I went over the horizon - their horizon - I could talk to them by relay back to Earth. I could say something to the Earth, and then my voice would be bounced back to them on the surface. And then for the rest of the time, when I was behind the moon, I wasn't talking to anybody, nobody there.

DAVIES: Former Apollo astronaut Michael Collins speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Collins died Wednesday at the age of 90. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LES DEUX LOVE ORCHESTRA'S "LES MODERNES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to the interview Terry recorded in 1988 with astronaut Michael Collins, who was on the Apollo 11 mission that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. Collins died Wednesday at the age of 90.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to ask you about another really momentous space accomplishment in your life, and that was in July of 1966 when you were, I think, the first person in space to leave the vehicle and make contact with another space vehicle. Is that right?

COLLINS: Yes. There was a spacewalk leaving Gemini - Gemini No. 10 and floating over to an Agena, another unmanned vehicle that had been left in orbit, and retrieving from that Agena an experiment package and then bringing it back to the Gemini. And that was a little strange and a little bit different, and that's not something that you can quite choreograph like you can other parts of space. You just sort of have to see how it goes as it goes. And I had a few problems. I was trailing this umbilical cord, and there were loose pieces of metal flapping off the end of the Agena. And I was afraid that the cord was going to get entangled with the Agena and that I was going to get wound up in a horrible mess, a ball connecting these two spacecraft. And poor old John Young, who was back in the Gemini, would have no choice but to snip my umbilical cord and leave me up there. And so it was a little tense for a while.

GROSS: When you left the capsule for the spacewalk, did you have to just kind of jump the way a lot of us jump into deep water for the very first time, thinking, well, I hope I float? This is it, got to go (laughter).

COLLINS: Well, what happened is the - yes, the first time John maneuvered the Gemini under the end of the Agena and we were about, I guess, 10 or 12 feet away from it, and I gave a little tiny nudge - I didn't want to get going too fast. And I floated up and almost missed the thing, but I barely snagged it. And - but then as I was going hand over hand around to where the experiment package was, I fell off. And so I had to reel myself in on the umbilical and come back into the Gemini cockpit and then try again a second time. And the second time, I had - instead of just pushing off, I had a little a little gun, it was called, where I could squirt out nitrogen gas and propel myself. So I aimed the gun right at the tip of the Agena and started squirting gas, and then I just kind of slowly rose up out of the cockpit and floated over to it and grabbed it once again.

GROSS: Wow. Well, I think if there's any experience in the universe that could really make you think about how small each person is compared to the universe itself, it would be your experience walking in space like that. Did you think about that at the time? Were you too preoccupied to think about it?

COLLINS: You know, actually, during that Gemini flight in Earth's orbit, we were really busy. We had - we were working about 16 to 18 hours a day. And we were overloaded. During the flight of Apollo 11 to the moon, I did have a chance to look back and give it some thought. If you look at the Earth as it is from the moon, first you find it's a tiny little thing once you locate it. You may look out all your spacecraft windows and not see it at all. But once you swing around and it comes into view, you're startled by how tiny it is. It's about the size of your thumbnail if you hold your arm out in front of you. And it's very, very bright, very, very shiny. The sunlight bounces off it.

It's almost like a small headlight out there, blue and white, primarily the blue of the water, the white of the clouds. You do see some land, but your primary impression is a little blue and white marble and no sign of human beings, no sign of any habitation. The overriding impression I got was one, oddly enough, of fragility. I mean, I walked the surface of this planet all my life. I know it's rock solid. But from space, it appears to be very, very fragile. And if we think about that view, it's an accurate one. Our little planet here, with its very thin atmosphere, is a fragile entity. And it makes you want to really nurture it and protect it once you've seen it from outer space.

GROSS: When you were doing your spacewalk, what could you actually see?

COLLINS: Oh, you can see wonderfully well. You have the whole world at your feet. Come roaring in over the Pacific Ocean, you can see in one glance all the way from Alaska to Baja, Calif. You go across the United States in something like six minutes. And if you miss something, not to worry, you'll be back again in another 90 minutes and get a second look at it. This is true when you're inside the spacecraft peering out a small porthole. It's even more true when you're outside, and you've got this wide angle view of the whole world below you.

GROSS: I'll tell you something I don't understand, and I don't know if you could explain it in lay terms, but when you're out dangling from this umbilical cord in space attached to a spacecraft, the spacecraft is speeding around in orbit. How do you keep up a relative speed with the spacecraft?

COLLINS: Oh, gee. That's hard to explain. It's sort of like driving down the highway at 55 miles an hour in your station wagon. And you've got the kids in the back seat. And if one of the kids jumps up off the seat, that kid comes down in the same spot. It doesn't come down somewhere else because the car has moved out from under him while he was up in the air. You see what I mean? The car's going 55 miles an hour. The kid's going 55 miles an hour. But the kid bounces up and down, lands in the same spot in the car because he's going zero miles an hour relative to the car. Does that make any sense?

GROSS: Yeah, it does, except that you're outside of the car, so to speak.

COLLINS: All right. Make it a convertible then instead of a station wagon.

GROSS: Right, OK. (Laughter) I got it. OK. Do you think that most astronauts who've gone as far away from their home planet as you have are changed very much by that experience? It seems like the kind of experience that would lead you to go - undergo either a religious conversion or to come back thinking about things in ways you've never thought about it before or that you might be very depressed afterwards because nothing could ever measure up to the climactic experience of walking on or orbiting the moon.

COLLINS: Well, I think all of those elements you mentioned are certainly there, Terry. I think I can only speak for myself. And in my case, they were there. They are there. But they're not - they're are relatively small things. I think I'm still fundamentally the same person that I was before I flew in space. You see things that will remain with you all your life. I've been privileged to see things that earthbound people will never see. And I won't forget those things. But I think I'm probably fundamentally the same person I was before.

DAVIES: Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. He died Wednesday at the age of 90. Coming up, actress Kate Winslet and a review of the Swedish film "About Endlessness." I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: T minus 15 seconds. Guidance is internal. Twelve, 11, 10, nine. Ignition sequence start. Six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. All engines running. Liftoff. We have liftoff 32 minutes past the hour. Liftoff on Apollo 11.

NEIL ARMSTRONG: Neil Armstrong reporting the roll and pitch program which puts Apollo 11 on a proper heading.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Roll's complete. (Unintelligible).

ARMSTRONG: Altitude's 2 miles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Houston, you're good at 1 minute.

ARMSTRONG: Down range, 1 mile...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.