Michael Collins’ presence in real life is just as charming
and witty as it is in his writing—if you haven’t read the hilarious
Q&A Collins did with himself a decade ago for the 40th anniversary of
Apollo 11 (and
recently updated for the 50th), it’ll give you some insight on why Collins
is one of NASA’s most beloved figures.
Collins joined employees in the Teague Auditorium at NASA’s
Johnson Space Center on July 24, 50 years after splashing down from the Apollo
11 mission. He spoke about his experience during Apollo in a discussion of
NASA’s past and future with Center Director Mark Geyer and Astronaut Anne McClain,
who recently returned from Expeditions 58/59 on the International Space Station.
Collins and McClain swapped space stories in front of the enthralled audience
that never missed an opportunity to laugh or applaud.
The first memory Collins recounted stressed he was far from lonely orbiting the Moon by himself while Neil and Buzz walked its surface—he had 30 white mice keeping him company. Living with mice was an experience Collins later reflected on while stuck in quarantine back on Earth and ironically reading John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men. “The mice are more important than the men,” Collins said jokingly, as it was the mice’s survival that would indicate whether the crew should be concerned about dangerous pathogens that might have come home with them.
On a more serious note, Collins also discussed the risks and
pressures the Apollo crew felt during the mission. “We felt the world’s weight
on our shoulders,” he said. “We didn’t fool around. It was all business with
us.” Collins said he primarily remembers not having time to relax and enjoy the
view on board for long, but in the moments when he did look out his window at
the Earth, he realized how delicate it was. “It had an air of fragility, like
something that is easily broken,” he said. “It was an amazing spectacle—the
blue ocean, white clouds and smears of rust that we call continents.”
The pressure the Apollo crew felt doesn’t seem to have
lessened by much. McClain said her thoughts on her way up to space, like every
other astronaut’s, was “don’t screw this up.” Of course, the missions today
aren’t quite as risky with updated technology, but the job still carries
The moment of the mission that really had Collins sweating
in his space suit wasn’t the landing but the return home. “It wasn’t a piece of
cake or anything, but I was pretty sure the landing would be OK,” he said.
There were 18 scenarios the team had drawn out for landing, each one requiring
the crew to respond differently. “The landing was a terrible experience for me
personally,” he said. “The world is upside down; there’s 100 percent humidity,
and it’s 99 degrees.” And on top of that, the crew didn’t know if they would
stick the landing. Today, that isn’t as much of a concern, and McClain said she
actually enjoyed the landing, equating it to a roller coaster ride. Her
difficulty came more with reintegrating back into society on Earth after being
gone for so long.
Even after the rough landings, our astronauts, past and
present, remind us the daring missions we are capable of accomplishing after
returning home safely—a perfect way to celebrate today, the anniversary of the
Apollo 11 splashdown. Soon, we’ll be off to the Moon again, and our explorers
reminded us of why: “Who would we be as a society if we stopped exploring?”
McClain said. “And would that be somewhere we would want to live?”
JSC employees can watch a recording of the panel on Imagery Online, CLICK HERE.
Collins visits the restored Apollo Mission Control with his two daughters.
Collins speaks to Geyer and McClain about his experiences on Apollo 11.
Collins at the restored Apollo Mission Control Center.
Collins chatted with the crew on board the International Space Station.