By taking a quick look at Michael Collins’s credentials — 11 days in space and more than 5,000 hours in the air — one must sense his great courage. Accompanying this extreme bravery, however, is a personality trait that seems unusual for a man of such lofty accomplishments — humility. Despite his overwhelming success in the aviation, aerospace and business worlds, Collins still describes himself as an underachiever.
- Last test pilot at Edwards AFB, California.
- Commander of Gemini 10 and made two space walks and docking missions with an EVA.
- Pilot of Apollo 11 command module while Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon July 20th, 1969.
- First Director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and later under-secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.
In 1961, after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration selected the astronauts for its manned spaced program, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Soon afterwards, President Kennedy said the nation should commit itself to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth before the end of the decade.
For Air Force test pilot Michael Collins the desire to become an astronaut was inspired by John Glenn’s thrilling three orbits of the Earth. He eagerly applied when NASA announced that it would select additional trainees. But after extensive physical and psychological tests, Collins was severely disappointed when he was not selected.
However, he did not give up, and after completing the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards, Collins was among the next fourteen selected for astronaut training. Reporting to the Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston, Collins began an extensive indoctrination in astronautics, went on many geological field trips and attended the Air Force Survival School in Panama. He also selected pressure suits and extravehicular activities as his areas of specialization and soon became deeply involved in the intricacies of astronaut training.
Collins’s first space assignment turned out to be as a backup pilot in the Gemini-7 mission of Frank Borman and James Lovell. Seven days after they launched into Earth orbit, Walter Schirra and Thomas Stafford also achieved orbit in their Gemini-6. By bringing their spacecraft within six feet of each other, they proved the feasibility of space rendezvous, and the ability of the human body to withstand weightlessness long enough to complete a lunar mission.
In early 1961, Collins earned a spot as pilot of the Gemini-10 mission, with John Young as commander. As the astronauts developed their flight plan, they nursed their spacecraft through its final assembly and tests. They also honed their skills during the flight, rendezvous and spacewalk simulators.
On July 18th, 1961. Collins and Young were ready for their Gemini-10 mission and willing hands assisted them into their spacecraft. When the countdown reached “zero”, their powerful Titan rocket propelled them into the sky and it entered into orbit 100 miles above the Earth. There Collins made the first of many stellar measurements and entered them into the navigational computer. He also photographed the terrain and weather below. Later, when the Gemini-10 overtook its Agena-10 target vehicle, it became the second spacecraft in history to dock with another.
At this point the astronauts used the Agena-10 to propel their spacecraft up to a new record altitude of 475 miles. After a well-deserved nap, they dropped down and began to overtake the Agena-8 target vehicle left orbiting for them by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Scott. Soon Collins opened the hatch and in his first extravehicular activity photographed the constellation Centaurs and a special lunar color film test plate.
The next day, the astronauts used the Agena-10 to again accelerate their spacecraft. After separating from it, they met with the Agena-8 at dusk and tracked it through the night with a searchlight. At dawn, Collins left the Gemini-1 and removed a meteorite detection panel from its exterior. Then he used a gas gun to propel himself over to the Agena-8 and remove a similar panel from it.
On the fourth day, upon completing 43 orbits of the Earth, the Gemini-10 spacecraft landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean and a helicopter brought the astronauts to their recovery ship. Collins had now become the seventeenth American to fly in space.
As NASA initiated its lunar landing program, the Apollo-7 was launched into Earth orbit and Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham examined the spacecraft’s components. In the first attempt to break the bonds of Earth and soar in orbit around the moon, Borman, Lovell and Anders were launched in the Apollo-8, while Collins served as their capsule communicator. Their flight took them closely around the moon and on Christmas Day they stunned the world by reading the “In the Beginning” passages from Genesis. Finally, proof of the lunar landing module came during the Apollo-9 Earth-orbiting and the Apollo-10 lunar orbiting missions. Now, at last, man was ready to try to land on the moon and then return safely to Earth.
In January 1969, the Apollo-11 lunar landing mission crew roster was announced. Astronaut Neil Armstrong would serve as mission commander, Mike Collins would be command module pilot, and Buzz Aldrin was chosen lunar module pilot. Armstrong and Aldrin were to try to land on the moon, while Collins continued in orbit. Mission success would depend equally upon all three.
By June, the astronauts were exhausted. Collins had not only worked extensively in simulators learning the idiosyncrasies of the command module, but he had also been subjected to more than ten Gs in the centrifuges. At this point the crew relocated to Cape Kennedy to concentrate on the venture ahead and the impending launch.
On July 16th, 1969. In the early morning darkness the gleaming Apollo-11 stood poised for the moon, while its astronauts donned their space suits. Then, as the crew approached the launch pad, hundreds who had labored on the program shouted encouragement to them. After they reached the top of the rocket and were sealed in the command module, millions waited in anticipation as the countdown proceeded: – “Three, two, one, zero. – all engines running. – lift off! – we have a liftoff 32 minutes past the hour! – - Lift off, Apollo-11, tower cleared!”
Now the powerful “Saturn” began the spacecraft on an incredible journey that had taken ten years and 24 billion dollars to prepare! As the world watched, the first two stages fired and fell away. The third stage successfully brought Apollo-11 into Earth orbit. It was a moment of jubilation at launch control.
Over the Pacific, the spacecraft accelerated again, freeing itself from the Earth’s gravity and beginning a trajectory to intercept the moon three days later. Enroute the world chuckles when Collins pointed his television camera at the blue and white Earth floating in the blackness of space and said, “Houston, Apollo. I’ve got you in my window.” Then slowly rotating the camera he said: “Okay, world, hold on to your hats. I’m going to turn you upside down. You don’t get to do that everyday!”
On the fourth day the astronauts achieved lunar orbit and were in awe of the moon’s forbidding appearance. On their 13th orbit, Collins pushed the button that separated him in the command module Columbia from Armstrong and Aldrin in the lunar module Eagle. As they drifted apart, Armstrong said: “The Eagle has wings”. Then, as it began its flight, Collins tracked it optically until it arched over into a slow descent toward the crater-pocked lunar surface.
As Collins continued his orbit around the moon, the Eagle approached the boulder-strewn sea of tranquility. He and fifty million people were in suspense until Neil Armstrong announced, “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed!”. Houston replied, “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground! You’ve got a lot of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot! Be advised there’s a lot of smiling faces in this room and all over the world!” Armstrong replied, “Well, there are two of them up here.”, and Collins in the Columbia circling the moon above added, “and don’t forget one in the command module!”
During his solitary vigil, Collins unsuccessfully attempted to optically locate the Eagle on the lunar surface. Being out of radio contact, he was unaware that as Armstrong stepped off the spacecraft’s ladder he had stated, “That’s one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.” The moment was a historic triumph not only for technology, but also for man. It proved he is limited in achievement only by his desire. Later, as Aldrin descended the ladder, Armstrong reported, “I can see the footprints of my boots.” Then after they collect precious samples of lunar rocks, Armstrong read a plaque that they placed on the moon: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon. July, 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
After the astronauts erected an American flag and payed their respects to it, and also set up a solar wind experiment, President Nixon radioed, saying: “because of what you have done, the heavens have become part of man’s world. 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, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”
In the remaining minutes, the astronauts gathered lunar soil samples, deployed a laser beam reflector for measuring the distance between the moon and Earth, installed a seismometer to record the intensity of meteor impacts and moonquakes, and collected sub-surface soil samples. Then, after loading their lunar finds aboard, they pressurized their lunar module and went to sleep.
Upon leaving the moon, the Eagle rocketed from the base of the lunar module and climbed to catch Collins in the Columbia orbiting overhead. While behind the moon, Armstrong accelerated it into an orbit 12 miles below the command module. Then when only 15 miles behind, he fired his rocket again. As the spacecrafts closed together, they turned into docking alignment and Collins now carefully maneuvered the Columbia until it finally docked with the Eagle. Hurriedly, Armstrong and Aldrin transferred themselves and the lunar samples to the command module. Now the Eagle was jettisoned and the three astronauts began the long journey home.
The next day the astronauts televised their thanks to the thousands of people who had had a role in making possible man’s first landing upon the moon. The third day Collins was advised that, due to weather in the Pacific, their splashdown point had been moved 225 miles eastward. Meanwhile, he spruced up for the return to Earth by shaving off his beard, but he retained his “moon mustache.”
As the Apollo-11 commenced its approach to the re-entry corridor, Collins jettisoned the service module and then turned the command module around so that its blunt end heat shield faced forward. As it approached the Earth, its parachutes deployed and it splashed down safely near the waiting carrier Hornet. Frogmen quickly attached flotation collars to the module and soon afterwards helicopters airlifted each astronaut to the deck of the Hornet. After the astronauts went through a mobile quarantine facility, President Nixon greeted them and they showed their joy at being back on Earth again. Later, the astronauts endured the first of many post-flight debriefing sessions.
In summary, as cosmic explorers, Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong have traveled nearly a million miles in their Apollo-11 and completed a venture that the National Geographic Society says was as much a mission of the spirit as a mission to the moon.
At this point, Collins decided that he would never fly in space again. His two missions provided him far more than a lifetime of adventure. But such flights did mean that the Age of Space Exploration had truly begun, and the way has been paved to send intelligence-seeking probes to the planets and for manned space shuttles.
Collins soon received a flood of congratulations from all over the world. But the one that he treasured the most was from Charles A. Lindbergh, who also knew the loneliness of the sky. After addressing a joint session of Congress, the astronauts made a whirlwind tour around the world. After their return, Collins eventually accepted the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. But he soon realized that politics was not his forte and in 1971 he became an Undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and also the founding director of its new National Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. As such, he directed its planning, construction and grand opening during the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, as well as its ongoing operation. In 1980 he joined the LTV aerospace and defense company as a vice president and directed its Washington operations. Finally, in January 1997, he opened his own aerospace consulting firm in Washington, D.C., Michael Collins Associates, and started again in new directions of personal challenge and endeavor.
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