Saturday, March 13th, 2010

Michael Collins, Apollo 11

Michael Collins is the astronaut who drove the bullet-shaped command and service module in circles around the moon while Aldrin and Armstrong took the lander down. The photo above is from the 2008 documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon. I couldn’t resist using it here, instead of the usual Nasa portrait because, to my lights, it’s a much better photo than almost any other I’ve seen of Collins. He’s got a great smile, which goes well with the very frank, plain-spoken way he has of of telling stories. I just love it that he’s a grandpa with stories to tell about flying in space.

One of my favorites: During the Gemini program, Collins was tapped to sit on a board that would review the applications of the newest recruits to the astronaut program. He was surprised there were no African-American applicants, but relieved there were no women applying for the job. I gritted my teeth and read on, expecting the usual garbage about how the job was too dangerous, or that women weren’t qualified, but it turns out that Michael Collins didn’t want to fly in space with women because he wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a dump:

I think our selection board breathed a sigh of relief that there were no women, because women made problems, no doubt about it. It was bad enough to have to unzip your pressure suit, stick a plastic bag on your bottom, and defecate — with ugly old John Young sitting six inches away. How about if it was a woman? No, it was better to stick with men.

Although Collins was deeply involved in the Gemini program with space suit development, and was selected for the Apollo program early on, he made just two flights into space, first on Gemini 10, then called it quits after Apollo 11. “I just didn’t feel I could go back to the bottom of [the] ladder and work my way up again,” he explained.

I was simply not willing to spend [three years] in simulators and nights in motel rooms instead of with my family. If I were leaving Deke [Slayton, head of the manned moon program] shorthanded, or if he could have promised to get me airborne in six months (which, of course, he could not and would not), it might have been a different story. As it was, Deke had enough astronauts to fly thirty missions to the moon.

His frankness sometimes comes off as irritation, or maybe ordinary grumpiness would be a better way to describe his attitude toward the endless hours of meetings, report-writing and training to fly a mission. And he is equally frank about describing the pressure he, Armstrong and Aldrin felt when it came to carrying off their mission without a hitch.

I don’t know why, but I’m always surprised by memoirs of people involved with the Apollo program. The PR machine built these people up to be gung-ho warriors filled with can-do spirit, yet when I read their stories they’re very ordinary, self-effacing and fragile, filled with optimism but pragmatism right up to the point where it almost begins to sound like self-doubt. Their memoirs reveal people who had grave doubts that it would ever come off, in spite of all their hard work. I was delighted with this book, though, from which Collins’s voice spoke loudly and clearly, and held plenty of interesting details about the space program I hadn’t read before.

Michael Collins | 3:17 pm CST
Category: hobby, play, space geekery
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