While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were busy with their famous walk on the moon, a third member of the team sat alone in the spaceship plagued by the terror of returning home alone.
There are a secret fear and terror which gripped astronaut Michael Collins throughout the Apollo 11 project half a century ago. As Columbia, his spacecraft flew over the lunar surface, Michael Collins – the largely forgotten crewman of Apollo 11 – waited for a message from the fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to confirm that their lander had successfully blasted off from the lunar surface.
This message would banish his deepest fear which was that he would be the only survivor of an Apollo 11 disaster and that he had to return home as “a marked man”. This worry that the mission would end up as a disaster consumed almost everybody which was involved in the programme – regardless of their apparent calm. However, the case of Collins was altogether different.
He was doubtful about the ascent engine of the lander Eagle which was supposed to carry Armstrong and Aldrin back to the orbit, where he was waiting. If engines failed to ignite, they would be stranded on the Moon, where they would eventually die once their oxygen runs out. Of if engines fail to burn for at least 7 minutes then the astronauts would either be stranded in to low lunar orbit or crash back to the moon, far from the reach of Columbia where Collins was waiting for them?
All the astronauts know that there was a 50% chance that they would not be able to make it back to the Earth. Not only the astronauts, even the then President of the United States of America, Richard Nixon had also prepared a speech which he would deliver in case of the engine failure of the Eagle. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace,” it ran. “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.“
Hence, when the world was overjoyed by the lunar walk of Amrstrong and Aldrin, Collins was worried about his fellow astronauts below him on the Moon.
Then eventually came the moment was fearing for. As Armstrong pressed the Eagle’s engine button, it soared perfectly above the lunar surface towards Collins who was waiting for them all the while. His worst fear didn’t materialised and he returned back safely to Earth in the company of Armstrong and Aldrin. They had a very grand reception and one would have definitely assumed that they had registered their names in the history of humankind forever.
In fact, just the opposite happened for Collins. Today majority of people remember the names of the first two men to the moon and even recall the words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But the name Michael Collins is lost somewhere. He is rarely recalled despite his critical role in the historic flight of Apollo 11. Though, he doesn’t hold any grudges for the same, “It was an Honour,” he said when asked about this.
In reality, he was – in multiple ways – the unsung hero of the Apollo 11 programme. Apollo 11 consisted of a lunar lander Eagle and an orbiting spaceship Columbia which were both blasted by the Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969 into the space. For about three days, Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin cruised in Columbia towards the Moon. The flight was piloted by Collins while his fellow astronauts spent most of their time gazing “out the window at the Earth getting smaller and smaller and checking the spacecraft“, according to Aldrin.
On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin flew down to the lunar surface in the Eagle. As they drifted away from the parent ship, Collins was radioed saying “Keep talking to me, guys,” in a panicky voice.
In a matter of minutes, Columbia swept behind the moon and thus Collins became the most distant solo traveler who was separated from the rest of the humanity by 400,000 km of space. His communication was also blocked by the bulk of the Moon from mission control. In short, he was out of contact as well as the sight from Earth. He wrote about this in his capsule as “I am now truly alone and absolutely alone from any known life. I am it.“
Such solitude was enough to make people anxious. But it couldn’t affect Collins. He recalls this emotion which was experienced by him in the orbit as that of joy. And it certainly appears that he really lived each moment of the time he got to spend as loneliest member of his species. His post Apollo years were also relatively peaceful. Armstrong became a loner while Aldrin lapsed into depression and alcoholism. In comparison, Collins while being away from the glare of publicity and avoided such traumas.
After his return to the Earth, he gave up space and pursued a career in bureaucracy followed by business. Today, he remains joyful about his experiences on Apollo 11, although, according oto him he has started becoming increasingly grumpy. “At age 78, some things about current society irritate me, such as the adulation of celebrities and inflation of heroism,” he said. Neither description fits him, he added. “Heroes abound, but don’t count astronauts among them. We worked very hard, we did our jobs to near perfection, but that is what we had been hired to do.“
According to him, his claim to fame is very simple. “Neil Armstrong was born in 1930. Buzz Aldrin was born in 1930, and Mike Collins, 1930. We came along at exactly the right time. We survived hazardous careers and were successful in them.”
He added, “But in my own case at least, it was 10% shrewd planning and 90% blind luck. Put Lucky on my tombstone.“