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Michael Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut, has died (npr.org)
1252 points by edwinbalani 14 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 180 comments

Collins' role in Apollo 11 is often minimized in the public conciseness, but I find it particularly fascinating from a human perspective. In certain ways it seems even scarier than Armstrong's and Aldrin's jobs. They at least had more direct control over their success in landing on the moon. Collins was largely powerless to help if something went wrong. If that did happen, he would have been faced with the choice of abandoning his crewmates to die on the moon and fly back to Earth himself. Meanwhile no one had ever been as far from other life as he was on that flight. When he was on the far side of the moon he was truly alone in a way that no other person had ever been in human history.

I read an article some time ago about the opposite scenario. I searched for the article just now but didn't find it; would be curious if anyone has a link.

I remembered it something like this (but see soarfourmore's reply for a correction): what if the command module pilot became incapacitated but was still alive?

The lunar module could still dock with the command module, but the astronauts would not be able to get into the command module because the the CM pilot could not open the hatch on that side.

So their only option would be to do a spacewalk over to the command module and open an external hatch to get in.

The would not know at that point whether the CM pilot had his spacesuit helmet on or not, so they wouldn't know until they opened the hatch whether they had just killed him.

> The would not know at that point whether the CM pilot had his spacesuit helmet on or not, so they wouldn't know until they opened the hatch whether they had just killed him.

There were windows on the command module to look in, and if they weren't sure if he was responsive/unresponsive, they could tap iron onto the command module to let Collins know they were there and spacewalking.

It's an interesting thought process though, and I would appreciate the source if you can find it

Found it!


From the article, I was wrong about not knowing whether the CMP was alive:

"Unless there was a very serious issue with the CM’s communications systems, NASA would know of the CMP’s fate immediately. Every astronaut wears biomedical sensors at all times, as part of their constant-wear garment. This telemetry is sent to the flight surgeon."

More discussion here:


A comment from that page:

"Probably the worst scenario would be for the CMP to be alive, but disabled and not in his spacesuit. There would be no way for the other astronauts to get to the CMP without depressurizing the CM, thus killing the CMP. It's an obvious choice between three astronauts stranded in lunar orbit, versus two getting home alive. Nonetheless, I can only imagine the regret that the astronaut who would have to depressurize the CM would have."

So it is even worse than the way I remembered it: the LM pilots would likely know that the CMP pilot was alive but incapacitated and they were about to kill him.

Apparently you can survive about 40 seconds in a vacuum. One option would be for one pilot to enter (as quickly as possible!) then put the CMP into a spacesuit, then re-admit the other astronaut. No clue if they could enter and re-pressurize the capsule within 30 seconds- sounds like a long-shot.


It takes about 45 minutes to don a modern spacesuit -- and that assumes the person donning the spacesuit is assisting with the process, not incapacitated.


Edit: This says it can actually be done in five minutes in an emergency if one's willing to skip every safety check, but getting an unresponsive person into one seems like surely it would be more of a challenge -- particularly if the "helper" was wearing a spacesuit himself. Those things are awfully restrictive! And I would wager it's not a scenario they practiced.


I think they are suggesting:

- Enter the command module, in spacesuit

- Quickly re-pressurize

- Help incapacitated astronaut into suit (temporarily removing own suit if necessary)

- Once both suited up, open airlock again to admit remaining astronaut

But I’m not sure if that would have been possible. Was there really a way to re-pressurize in a few seconds, 2001 style?

> - Help incapacitated astronaut into suit (temporarily removing own suit if necessary) > - Once both suited up, open airlock again to admit remaining astronaut

These steps don't seem to be necessary. Since the CM can be opened from the inside towards the LM, the third astronaut could just wait in the LM and be let in that way.

I think the only question is really how quickly can you repressurize the CM.

It was basically a cone-shaped pressure vessel 3.23m tall and 3.91m wide, that's 51.71m^3 of volume. I'd estimate about 50% is taken up by machinery, so how fast can you repressurize 25m^3 to 1/3 sea level (which was apparently standard for the spacecraft)?

My guess would be it could be done pretty quickly, maybe 2 minutes?

Your insight suggests an even better solution: the spacewalking astronaut could open the internal hatch to the docked Lunar Module so its cabin air can instantly partially repressurize the Command Module

Maybe, IF the hatch can be opened when there is a pressure difference. It might be dangerous or even mechanically locked out in those cases. It may not, I have no idea.

I mean we're just guessing and spitballing here, and all of this assumes that whatever incapacitated the CMP is fixable by the other astronaut. But it does look like there may be a decent chance the CMP could survive this. Of course, he might have internal injuries or they might not be able to restart his heart. But seems like this procedure would be worth a try.

Opening the hatch was a huge pain. They'd have to disassemble the rather phallic docking mechanism (as Collins described it). Not being able to disassemble it was one of the fears Collins had about Apollo 11.

Similarly, Collins wrote a memo to the astronaut corps explaining that on the Mercury missions, if someone became incapacitated during EVA, they'd have to cut their life support cable and close the hatch and come home alone.

Very interesting and grim! But Mercury capsules only carried a single astronaut. You may be thinking of Gemini or Apollo?

If he was incapacitated slowly, he might have time to don a spacesuit, anticipating this scenario? NASA must know.

I've been in a number of situations myself where swift incapacitation would have killed me. This is common.

Looking at other times when astronauts became ill, they tended to tough it out until too late to put on a space suit.

You can survive vaccuum for a brief period of time.

> Flight recorder data from the single cosmonaut outfitted with biomedical sensors showed cardiac arrest occurred within 40 seconds of pressure loss. […] The autopsies took place at Burdenko Military Hospital and found that the cause of death proper for the cosmonauts was hemorrhaging of the blood vessels in the brain, with lesser amounts of bleeding under their skin, in the inner ear, and in the nasal cavity, all of which occurred as exposure to a vacuum environment caused the oxygen and nitrogen in their bloodstreams to bubble and rupture vessels. Their blood was also found to contain heavy concentrations of lactic acid, a sign of extreme physiologic stress. Although they could have remained conscious for almost 40 seconds after decompression began, less than 20 seconds would have passed before the effects of oxygen starvation made it impossible for them to function.


If you want to see how disabling even a little loss of pressure can be, check it this video.


I don’t know how fast they’d be able to enter and repressurize the capsule, but I suppose there’s a chance he could survive in that scenario. Though depending on why was incapacitated in the first place his chances may have even more diminished by whatever afflicted him.

What if the command module pilot became incapacitated but was still alive?

That's why one of the mission planning decisions was that the astronaut tasked with operating the orbiter must have previous time in space.

And they made him fly acrobatics in a jet shortly before the mission. ("Made" might be too strong a word since Collins thought it was fun.) NASA thought that might help train the inner ear to avoid the dreaded space sickness.

Apollo 15, 16 and 17 did perform nominal EVAs from the command module after the lunar landing, to retrieve film cassettes. To this day they are the only 3 deep space EVAs ever made. All others have been either in Earth orbit or on the moon.

To clarify, they were transearth EVAs, so they were not even during orbit around the moon. I recall seeing some upscaled videos on youtube of this which looked pretty unearthly.


Also, in the article linked below, Al Worden described his transearth EVA on Apollo 15 in which he could see both the entirety of the earth and moon simultaneously in his field of vision (the only person to do so in history?). He regrets not having a camera, but he later had an artist recreate the memorable view of the moon behind Jim Irwin (included in the article).


Reminds me of Collins on Gemini 10. He did an EVA from further from Earth than anyone had ever been before. He took pictures of the Gemini capsule with Earth in the background. And then his camera fell off and drifted until space.

I found one upscaled and interpolated to 24fps:


That's soooo cool. I love the audio "This is what it means to be a spaceman! Ok, back to work." Cowboys. Highly educated and extensively trained cowboys, but still cowboys and little kids.

> it seems even scarier than Armstrong's and Aldrin's jobs. [...] When he was on the far side of the moon he was truly alone in a way that no other person had ever been in human history.

This was used by Naoki Urasawa in his "20th Century Boys" manga series. The main villain, who has effectively isolated himself from his humanity, keeps repeating "I am Michael Collins", to describe his delusion of being at once the loneliest being ever and the one from which everyone else will eventually depend.

This might be one of the best villain "ticks" I've ever heard of.

All of humanity in one picture except for Michael Collins: https://www.reddit.com/r/spaceporn/comments/63ztoy/all_of_hu...

The OG anti-selfie.

Collins also spent a lot of time outside of radio comms.

If something had gone wrong on the dark side of the moon, we might never have known what happened. We'd have had a perfectly cheerful conversation with the command module pilot, then a comms blackout, then nothing... With a lot of coordination, the lander crew could possibly have returned to the command module without Collins's support to find out what happened to him (and hopefully found a CM still in a condition to go home).

And for all that, he reported in his autobiography that it didn't bother him.

It seems to me that astronauts are selected precisely because they are not bothered by that kind of existential worry and fear. If something is wrong they work the problem and perhaps die trying.

For the benefit of anyone who hasn't read it, his autobiography is called Carrying The Fire, and is excellent.

Sorry to correct you. But the first person alone in lunar orbit was John Young during the Apollo 10 mission

While that's true, during Apollo 10 didn't the LEM and CM stay on the same side of the Moon?

The "loneliest" anecdote is based on how far away Michael Collins was from the next closest people. Since the LEM was on the other side of the moon once per orbit, Collins was much further away from other people than John Young got.

I'm unclear on what you are correcting. I didn't state he was the first to do a lunar orbit in his own spacecraft, but he was the first to do it without any other nearby craft. As far as I'm aware, the lunar module and the command module were never actually that far apart during Apollo 10. So while they were separated, the distance between the two was measured in hundreds of miles rather than the thousands of miles that was true during Apollo 11 and the later lunar landings.

Some mission parameters are at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_10#Mission_parameters

The lunar orbit of the LM (Lunar Module) and CSM (Command-Service Module) had a period of 2.15 hours. The interval during which the LM orbited separately from the CSM was 8 hours 10 minutes, or about 3.8 orbits. Thus, at times both craft would have been on the far side of the moon. While the LM was in its lower orbit I don't know how much shorter its orbital period would have been, or whether it "lapped" the CSM during the time between closest approach and redocking.

Young also commanded STS-1, the first shuttle launch mission.

I just finished For All Mankind and this was one of the choices explored in the first season.

> Meanwhile no one had ever been as far from other life as he was on that flight.

Xkcd has a good fact check on this: it's just about plausible that some Polynesian or Antarctic explorer, the last survivor of a doomed expedition, was the furthest from any other human. But more likely it is the CSM commanders.

I note you say "other life" rather than "other humans", which would make it more clear cut in favour of Collins if we don't count whatever microorganisms travelled in Collins' gut and on every surface of Apollo.


I did think about that possibility which is why I wrote "life" and not "humans". Perhaps it should have been "visible life" or "non-microscopic life". Being alone on the ocean is certainly scary, but there is enough life and resources in the water to sustain someone basically indefinitely. Collins was alone beyond the tiny organisms that the crew brought up with them.

> Xkcd has a good fact check on this: it's just about plausible that some Polynesian or Antarctic explorer, the last survivor of a doomed expedition, was the furthest from any other human. But more likely it is the CSM commanders.

See Point Nemo:

> The oceanic pole of inaccessibility (48°52.5′S 123°23.6′W)[17] is the place in the ocean that is farthest from land. It lies in the South Pacific Ocean, 2,688 km (1,670 mi) from the nearest lands: Ducie Island (part of the Pitcairn Islands) to the north, Motu Nui (part of the Easter Islands) to the northeast, and Maher Island (near the larger Siple Island, off the coast of Marie Byrd Land, Antarctica) to the south. The area is so remote that—as with any location more than 400 kilometres (about 250 miles) from an inhabited area—sometimes the closest human beings are astronauts aboard the International Space Station when it passes overhead.[18][19]

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pole_of_inaccessibility#Oceani...

There are sailing races (group and solo (and non-stop)) that venture into those waters:

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ocean_Race

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vend%C3%A9e_Globe

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_Golden_Globe_Race

It's plausible. The moon's width is 2,158.8 miles, and I could imagine an explorer being >3000 miles from another human

The actual travel distance would be further because you can't just bore through the moon.

I'm too lazy to do the math, but what's the point-to-point distance (through the planet) of points that are 5000km along the surface?

Assuming a spherical earth, it's 4873 km.

Assuming a spherical earth in a vacuum... One of the few times that simplifying assumption matches reality.

Not quite; the Earth is an oblate spheroid. Assuming it's a sphere is certainly a close enough approximation for this exercise, though.

How far is it if you assume a flat earth?


> public conciseness

That was possibly an autocorrecto for "public consciousness", but I like how well it still applies.

I mean, a few guys stayed in orbit on subsequent lunar missions, but you're right, Collins was the first.

>he was truly alone in a way that no other person had ever been in human history

The "had" there was meant to imply it was true up until that point in history. Other people have either nearly matched or slightly exceeded him depending on the specific details of the later Apollo mission lunar orbits. However it is mentally easier to be the second person to do something dangerous once you see the first person succeed safely. There is a reason everyone knows Armstrong and Aldrin, but Conrad and Bean don't have much notoriety today in the general population.

For the sake of clarifying further:

At least according to usage that I'm familiar with, if the phrase were, "no other person has ever been", that would be talking about before or since. But "no other person had ever been" is only talking about history up until that point. "Has been" is the present perfect tense, and "had been" is the past perfect tense.

He also, during his orbits around the moon, was the most isolated human being alive, with thousands of miles to the next humans (Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon)

" When he was on the far side of the moon he was truly alone in a way that no other person had ever been in human history."

Well, in terms of distance maybe, but I would argue, a lone surviver on a shipwrack no one knows about, or in some dessert - would be more alone, than an astronaut, being watched and thought about by millions and in direct communication with peopke.

(was communication with earth possible, when the moon was in between?)

> Collins was largely powerless to help if something went wrong. If that did happen, he would have been faced with the choice of abandoning his crewmates to die on the moon and fly back to Earth himself.

He would have died in orbit then, just a little bit closer to the rest of mankind. There was no was way for him to return to solid Earth unless the lunar module came back. He was dependent on the outcome of the Lunar mission and he was not even allwed to set his foot onto Moon. One of my heros since childhood...

Err, this isn't correct. There would be be nothing preventing the command module from returning home in the event of the lunar lander not coming back from the moon. Though of course the command module pilot would be a bit more task-loaded.

I think you're thinking of the other way around - the LEM would have been unable to return to earth with the command and service modules. It lacked a heatshield.

> There was no was way for him to return to solid Earth unless the lunar module came back.

I'm not sure what you're basing that on. The Apollo 11 flight plan, available on the NASA website [1], shows LM jettison before TEI burn. That indicates that the LM was not needed for TEI. If for some reason the LM did not come back from the surface of the Moon, the CSM could still execute the TEI burn.

[1] https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/a11fltpln_final_reformat.pd...

The LM does return to the CSM before the burn so it is conceivable it was needed for some preparatory step before TEI. Perhaps a fuel transfer or some guidance calculations or some other maneuvers. That it was jettisoned before the burn tells us nothing about the necessity of the module up to the moment it was jettisoned.

> The LM does return to the CSM before the burn so it is conceivable it was needed for some preparatory step before TEI.

The flight plan makes clear that this is not the case.

> Perhaps a fuel transfer or some guidance calculations or some other maneuvers.

Even without reading the details of the flight plan, the LM was designed to carry just enough fuel to get down to the Moon's surface and back up again, with no extra fuel for other maneuvers; there wasn't any margin for any extra if the mission was to be doable at all. So it doesn't seem plausible that the CSM would have had to depend on getting some fuel transferred back from the LM in order to execute TEI.

As far as guidance calculations, that doesn't seem plausible either. The CSM, having been in a single stable orbit the whole time, would be expected to have much better guidance information than the LM, which had just executed a series of maneuvers, some of which were under manual control.

Sure, that all makes sense, and we know how it worked and that the LM was not needed. I’m just saying that we can’t infer the LM was unneeded for TEI just because it was jettisoned.

Hmm, wouldn't the simplest explanation for the LM returning to the CSM before the TEI burn be for the simple reason of returning the two crew-members who went to the lunar surface to the CSM before initiation of the TEI burn?

Yeah, of course, but that doesn’t mean that was the only reason, and since that had to happen maybe TEI relied on the return of the astronauts and/or LM from the Lunar surface.

My point was just that if our only information is that the LM returned to the CSM and was jettisoned before TEI we can’t deduce that the LM was not needed for TEI.

If that was the only information, then yes, we can't deduce whether it was, or was not, needed.

But there is other information available:


Command module pilot Mike Collins, who could only keep orbiting in the mothership while his comrades waited out the countdown to lunar liftoff, worried enough for all three of them. “I have been flying for 17 years, by myself and with others,” he would write in his post-mission memoir. “But I have never sweated out a flight like I am sweating out the LEM [liftoff] now. My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter. If they fail to rise from the surface, or if they crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life, and I know it. Almost better not to have the option I enjoy.”

Two key sentence fragements: "leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone" and "If they fail to rise from the surface, or if they crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith". Both indicate that Collins fully believed he could execute TEI should the LM fail to return. The only way he could possibly "return[ing] to earth alone" should the LM "fail to rise from the surface" would be if the CSM could execute TEI without the LM ever returning from the lunar surface.

Which would indicate that the LM was not required in any way for TEI.

The fact that Apollo 8 CSM flew to lunar orbit and back to Earth without any LM involvement easily defeats all your arguments.

A necessary fuel transfer, at least, wouldn't make sense. If fuel was needed to come back, sending it down and back again would have just meant wasting more fuel for no benefit to lug it there and back again.

Wait really? I never knew that. I thought the CSM had guidance and the main engine, why did he need the LEM to get home?

That's correct. He could have gotten home without the LM. (See Apollo 8, which didn't have an LM at all.)

> There was no was way for him to return to solid Earth unless the lunar module came back.

Where did you get that idea from? This is the first time I see someone claiming something like that.

Probably from the film Apollo 13, which depicts (likely wise) hesitance to fire the SPS due to suspected damage and instead firing midcourse correction burns with the LEM descent stage while attached to the CSM. By contrast, during the otherwise normal Apollo 11, SPS was responsible for returning Collins and the CSM to Earth (TEI) whether he retrieved Armstrong and Aldrin or not. The latter case was a rehearsed abort and the stakes were known, but the maneuver was otherwise the same as a normal TEI (excluding LEM jettison, obviously). Nixon’s backup speech illustrates this, as it eulogizes those two alone; Collins would have most likely returned on his own in that horrible circumstance barring a further failure of some kind.

> instead firing midcourse correction burns with the LEM descent stage while attached to the CSM.

The descent stage was left on the moon so that would have been the LM ascent stage. They had 2 separate motors for descent and ascent.

But indeed Apollo 13 was very different. I think on normal missions they only brought the LM back along for TEI so as not to litter the surface with crashed LMs.

Why make (wrong) guesses when you can find the answer in minutes on Wikipedia? Plus it doesn’t make sense to do a TEI with unnecessary mass. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Lunar_Module :

“The six landed descent stages remain at their landing sites; their corresponding ascent stages crashed into the Moon following use. One ascent stage (Apollo 10's Snoopy) was discarded in a heliocentric orbit after its descent stage was discarded in lunar orbit.“

Elsewhere, I read that the ascent stages were crashed into the moon to provide impulses for the seismometers left on the moon. Snoopy is still in orbit around the sun. And the one from Apollo 13 is in the Tonga Trench. Two fascinating lists:



As for littering the surface of the moon, I was surprised to see in videos that in addition to the scientific equipment ( and golf balls) they left on the moon, there was a lot of other little pieces. In one of the videos on the rover, they literally remove the cover off something and just throw it aside on the ground.

I was on my phone (materialistic app) so even a wikipedia search is difficult :) I hate using the web on a mobile, it feels like I'm looking through a toilet roll.

But I mentioned it was an assumption... The parent poster mentioned that the ascent stage was carried into TEI so I assumed that was true.

That is not true. They jettisoned the Eagle's ascent stage and returned with Columbia.

I've always thought the CSM commanders had the most incredible and challenging role of the three Apollo astronauts. They were undoubtedly the "most alone" humans ever — at least on a physical level. Every other hour they'd transit to the far side of the moon and would be 2200 miles (3600km) away from the nearest two humans and hundreds of thousands of miles/km away from everyone else who's ever lived. Not only that, they lost radio contact. The silence and solitude must have been wild.

For upwards of three days.

From the NYT obit:

“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” [Collins] wrote in recreating his thoughts for his 1974 memoir, “Carrying the Fire.”

“If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side,” he added. “I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars — and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void.”

What I find remarkable about that quote is that there were only three billion humans at the time. Apollo 11 wasn’t that long ago was it? And we’re already at a population more than twice that figure.

Before covid, worldometers was known for tracking population data!


> Nearly 50% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber–Bosch process.

-- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process#Economic_and_env...

I love the photo he took, where in the frame there was literally every human who was alive and has ever lived, except Michael Collins himself:


“How isolated, how lonely those two space supermen appeared! But they had each other for companionship; and through television, they were held in the thoughts of viewing millions of men and women. To be really isolated, to fully experience loneliness, you must be alone. From Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s spectacular movements, my mind shifted to Collins’s lunar orbiting. Relatively inactive and unwatched, he had time for contemplation, time to study both the nearby surface of the moon and the distant moonlike world. Here was human awareness floating through universal reaches, attached to our earth by such tenuous bonds as radio waves and star sights. A minor functional error would leave it floating forever in the space from which, ancestrally, it came.”

Charles Lindbergh's forward in Carrying the Fire.

Lindbergh died in 1974. The man who first soloed across the Atlantic wrote the forward for the man who first soloed around the moon. Huh.

A child born on December 17th, 1903- the day the Wright's flew a plane just under a quarter mile at Kittyhawk- would have turned 65 the day before Apollo 8 took off to take the first humans to Lunar orbit.

He spoke about this in the documentary film, In the Shadow of the Moon [0], "Certainly I didn't feel it as fear, I felt it as awareness, almost a feeling of exultation. I liked it! It was a good feeling." He mentioned the same thing in his book, Carrying the Fire (I saw that NPR is calling it "the best of the astronaut autobiographies", and having read it, I concur.)

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMx2MA5bEtk

In 1970 (shortly after my birth), my grandmother bought me my first Christmas ornament for the tree. It was a glass Michael Collins astronaut figure. Over the years, it has taken a couple tumbles, lost a leg and most of the helmet, but every year it goes up to the top of the tree in a prominent place. I was struck with a profound sense of sadness today when I heard of his passing mostly due to my connection to him via this simple ornament. He will continue on in that place of prominence and I hope to pass this on to my children and their children at some point.

RIP Michael Collins. Jethro Tull has a song about Michael Collins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU7BYLmAiV8 "For Michael Collins, Jeffery and Me"

    I'm with you L.E.M
    Though it's a shame that it had to be you
    The mother ship
    Is just a blip from your trip made for two
    I'm with you boys
    So please employ just a little extra care
    It's on my mind
    I'm left behind when I should have been there
    Walking with you

First thought too after reading the title

Huge fan. "Carrying the Fire" was one of the greatest finds in my (rural Florida, 1970's) high school library. I'd never heard anyone say "I bore easily", let alone someone as responsible as an astronaut, I was awed by the vulnerability, and encouraged that boring easily wasn't necessarily debilitating. A great book, a great man.

Agreed, it's an amazing book.

For anyone interested in the story of the astronauts who went to the moon, Moondust is a great read. In the early 2000s (if I remember right), the author traveled around the world to visit each of the living men who had set foot on the moon. He asks them about their experiences, both on the moon and in the time since the moon missions ended. Some of them treat him like any interviewer, but toward the end as they realize he has actually connected all of their stories once again, they share a bit more than what comes out in typical interviews.

It's a wonderful blending of life in the world at that time, the story of our collective quest to reach the moon, and the individual stories of humans who actually went there.

- https://www.amazon.com/Moondust-Search-Men-Fell-Earth/dp/152...

A similar concept, it seems, Andrew Chaikin's "A Man on the Moon" is a fantastic read.

I'm glad his memoir, "Carrying the Fire", got mentioned. It's one of the best astronaut memoirs.

I believe it was his book where he describes the moon hanging there as they were closing in on it. This massive, plaster-of-paris sphere almost filling his view.

His description (ignore mine above) made me realize just how remarkable that must have been to see. The Earth diminishing to a ball is one thing, but this atmosphere-less, white desert, Little-Prince-like, moon bearing down on you sounds like something else entirely.

I'm half-way through reading this at the moment and I cannot recommend it highly enough. In the prologue he talks of being able to turn to any page and find something interesting to read. He's not wrong.

Carrying The Fire is my favourite astronaut memoir and I've read a few, it reads beautifully. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest.

Wow, I just finished reading Carrying the Fire three days ago. Good writer and a great ambassador for the space program.


Only four people are still alive that have walked on the moon and only 10 Apollo Moon mission people are still alive.


We are now in a race to see if the last people on the moon are still around to congratulate the next people to stand on the moon.

I pondered to my wife "I wonder if we'll return to the moon before all those who have been have passed away?" Phrased another way: "Will there ever be a day (since the first landing) on which no living human has left the Earth?"

Here's the list. In this context, I use "leave the Earth" mean to mean having left the planet's gravity well, not the atmosphere only. And asterisk implies walked on the moon. The number in brackets is the Apollo Mission no.

  Frank Borman [8] 
  Jim Lovell [8,13]
  Bill Anders [8]
  Tom Stafford [10]
  Fred Haise [13]
  Buzz Aldrin* [11]
  David Scott*  [15]
  Charlie Duke* [16]
  Ken Mattingly [16]
  Harrison Schmitt* [17]

Statements on Passing of Michael Collins.


"As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module – some called him ‘the loneliest man in history’ – while his colleagues walked on the Moon for the first time, he helped our nation achieve a defining milestone."

In a way it was a bit disappointing. But it was also a big, huge responsibility. Remember, if something went wrong with the Eagle, he was going to return alone to Earth.

Extra disappointing after going through helicopter pilot training to be certified to fly the lunar lander.

I highly recommend playing https://apolloinrealtime.org/11/ through - maybe in the background - it's a great way to experience the entire mission and enjoy the interaction between the three astronauts.

I feel bad for Collins, at best he got the "also participated" award in the public mindshare - and this despite that fact he was left more alone than any man in history, locked about the dark side of the moon, wondering if he was going home alone.

> despite that fact he was left more alone than any man in history, locked about the dark side of the moon, wondering if he was going home alone

He actually didn't mind being on the dark side of the moon.

"'I was not lonely,' Collins said at an Explorer's Club event in New York City earlier this year, 'I had a happy little home in the command module. Behind the moon it was very peaceful — no one in Mission Control is yakkin' at me and wanting me to do this, that, and the other. So I was very happy, it was a happy home.'" [0]


True, on the other hand, he was part of the most exciting missions in human history. But being on the dark side of the moon all alone must have felt really spooky.

I feel worse for the astronauts that were supposed to go on the cancelled apollo missions that must have been such a big disappointment.

Yeah, I don't know... at the same time he was well in the "first crew on the moon" club, without just as much of the constant, unwavering, overwhelming attention that Neil Armstrong must have gotten.

It's hard to imagine that bitter-sweetness he must've felt. At the same time, how could he ever complain. Maybe he took no issue, but I'm sure everyone in the program was hoping to be the first man.

I can't imagine that he took issue; these guys generally seemed to put the mission before the self.

I forget the exact wording in his autobiography but it was something like "I can't pretend I'm crazy enough to prefer being in my seat to the other two's. But I've got my own part to play."

They are also cut-throat competitive, ego maniacs. Just incredibly professional. I don't think you get to where those guys are without an incredibly appetite for success.

That's the central thesis of The Right Stuff. Collins was bumped from Apollo 8 and didn't feel that bad about bumping someone else from Apollo 11 as a result.

Sad news. He was articulate and passionate, but very humble also. His book Carrying the Fire revived my interest in space as a 30-something adult who grew up dreaming of being an astronaut.

12 people have walked on the moon (4 are still alive), 12 more people have flown around the moon (6 are still alive). Time to go again.

Michael Collins is the ultimate team player. What a privilege it would have been to work with him. It's sad to read of his passing, but I'm glad he got 90 years. A great man.

Clear skies and tailwinds. Can't get back to the Moon fast enough, while we still have living continuity to Apollo. Can't believe how low the low in our space program has been.

Pictures of Pluto, a helicopter on Mars, I’m more inspired than ever by nasa

And I love them for it. But I want humans on the Moon again.

To be fair, the pure scientific impact of the robotic missions is probably much higher than human ones (besides advances in medical/bioscience). But, placing people on the moon probably brings more funding for NASA than robots.

Edit: Both are still extremely cool though

To compare the scientific return of robots and people, we can compare the results of the only space rock both have visited: the Moon. The six manned Apollo missions brought back much much much more scientific return than all of the contemporary robotic missions. Apollo brought back 382 kg of moon rocks. Three Soviet probes (first one, Luna 16, between Apollo 12 and 14) brought back a total of 326g. While it's a bit facile to claim that's the whole difference, I would say that the difference in scientific return was at least one order of magnitude, if not quite as large as the moon rock numbers.

Now, the Apollo program also cost much more than the robotic missions. If you are willing to invest enough (e.g. Apollo was >1% of US GDP/year for most of the 60's) you can get an enormous amount of scientific return from a manned mission, but robots are useful for budgets that can't cover a manned mission.

Bear in mind that the Luna missions were done with 1960s Soviet robotics technology... And were only a side-show to their goal of a manned landing, which was hamstrung by repeated launcher problems. (And as soon as they lost the moon race, interest in this immediately dried up on the Soviet side - the sample return in the 70s was an afterthought.)

If your goal is to plant a flag and ship back ~400 Kg of moon rocks, you could do it today, using robots, for a tiny fraction of a manned mission's budget. The thing is, bringing back 400 Kg of moon rocks is not 400 times more valuable than bringing back 1 Kg of moon rocks.

Right, but the lunar science was not just limited to sample return, and here the J missions (Apollo 15-17) with their SIM bay cameras produced much better image quality than even Lunar Orbiter for much of the Moon's surface (Lunar Orbiter 5, in the polar orbit, was able to map parts of the Moon that the J missions never saw.) Similarly, the rover's traveled farther than the Lunkhod's did, showing us a much greater area of the surface. And the most sophisticated scientific instrument ever to go to the moon, even today, would be Harrison Schmitt, with his Harvard Geology Ph.D brain and hands.

As for "done with 1960's technology" so was Apollo: the ability to discover hydrogen (used to find the ice in the lunar crater shadows) wasn't possible with 1960's sensors that were light enough even for the much larger mass and power budgets of an Apollo spacecraft (vis a vis Lunar Orbiter or similar probe).

Robotics has advanced a lot further from the 60s than the ability of people wearing space suits to manipulate instruments.

In fact, the latter hasn't really advanced at all in those 60 years.

By the nature of the beast, a spacecraft with humans is going to have absolutely thunderous mass and energy budgets compared to robotic ones, so any instrument you can put on a robot you can put on a manned mission.

In a similar manner, I would expect any manned mission to Mars to employ a lot of robots: control is much easier when the human making the decisions is a few light seconds away versus 8 light minutes. And if you have the mass (and money) for a manned mission, you can tuck in a bunch of robots for very little extra. So a human mission will always be strictly greater than (in scientific return and cash budget) robot mission.

> By the nature of the beast, a spacecraft with humans is going to have absolutely thunderous mass and energy budgets compared to robotic ones, so any instrument you can put on a robot you can put on a manned mission.

By the nature of the beast, for the cost of a single manned mission, you can launch dozens of expendable, unmanned missions, that can go on for more than a few days. Robots don't need to eat, or breathe, and they don't grouse when you abandon them on an alien surface.

Coincidentally last night I re-watched one of my favorite episodes of "From the Earth to the Moon," "Galileo was Right," which focuses on the Apollo 15 crews getting field training in geology. Their instructor (along with backup LM pilot Jack Schmitt, a geologist, who then flew on Apollo 17) emphasized identifying and collecting the "right" rocks, not just "any" rocks, which led to some of the more interesting samples, including the "Genesis Rock."

Imagine how many robots you could launch for the same money

Always struck me as a vanity project when there were much more deserving uses for the money.

James Webb is still planned to launch this year too (fingers crossed)

Last years Chang'e 5 mission was essentially a robotic Apollo mission. This decade does look to be promising for Lunar exploration.

Chang'e 5 was more like a modern day Luna 16 than an Apollo mission.

Luna 16 had no rendezvous in lunar orbit, while Change'e 5 had the sample return capsule rendezvous with the Orbiter, like the Appolo missions.

The reason the space program wound down was because the moon race was a vanity project. Once the vanity goal was achieved, nobody had any reason to go back there.

Meanwhile, people and groups with non-vanity goals are making extensive use of space in 2021, compared to 1969... But that's not very sexy, because things like weather satellites and imaging satellites, and communications satellites and the occasional telescope actually accomplish concrete, useful things, at a fraction of the Apollo budget.

> nobody had any reason to go back there

Don't tell that to the Radio Astronomers. Something, something, dark side.[0]


SpaceX is still blowing up rockets like it's 1950s NASA, maybe we should just fully fund the competent folks at 2020s NASA instead.

Occurrence of failures directly correlates to occurrence of growth and innovation. SpaceX is (a) innovating very fast, and therefore we see lots of failures, (b) embracing those failures as opportunities to grow, and (c) installing many sensors and collecting a lot of data to maximize the chance that they can learn a lot from whatever failures occur.

Make no mistake, if a company or institution isn't trying a lot and failing a lot to achieve a new type of goal, it's also not making much progress toward any new type of goal.

I'm more critical of SpaceX but I have to admit that they've managed to blow up a lot of hardware without killing any passengers. That suggests they know what they're doing.

Then why shouldn't we apply this same standard to government projects? Any time a government project doesn't go perfectly it's used an excuse to scrap the very concept of government since "they can't do anything right".

As far as I'm concerned, the government is free to innovate, as long as my daily life (and that of my fellow Americans) is not part of what's being experimented with. We have the entire corpus of world history to refer to for experimental data on government policy -- let's use it as much as possible. Social crises aren't worth creating for the data they yield.

Regarding technical innovation, NASA did a lot of that in the 1960s. There were a lot of failures then (Mercury and Gemini programs), followed by incredible success (Apollo program). NASA's work with SpaceX is another great form of innovation -- pick the most innovative commercial partners and move forward.

The US culture around government is really weird. And yes, if people gave the government permission to fail sometimes they could probably do things 10x cheaper. But that requires a level of trust that just isn't there. I don't know why, and I'm glad I live somewhere more functional.

No only does lack of trust prevent innovation, on the other end of the spectrum you have people who won't tolerate failure because it might give the distrustful of government people data point or talking point.

NASA seems confident enough in SpaceX's ability to award them a contract for Starship to take them back to the moon.

"This is but one of many genuinely shocking aspects of NASA's decision a week ago to award SpaceX—and only SpaceX—a contract to develop, test, and fly two missions to the lunar surface. The second flight, which will carry astronauts to the Moon, could launch as early as 2024."


I love how whenever SpaceX fails to land a booster that I see headlines of "SpaceX blows up another rocket", even if it still delivered its payload to orbit.

I do wonder, however, where NASA would be if they would have continued with the DC-X prototype instead of abandoning it when it had a landing leg failure causing it to topple over in an early test.

It's because of Elon's hubris and the ways that hubris is baked into the entire institutional culture. I think far fewer people would delight in their failures if they showed an ounce of humility from any of their mistakes. Instead, they continue to make wild eyed proclamations and promises of impossible goals, but it's Elon so people continue to believe him for some reason.

Great progress comes from Elon's hubris.

> people continue to believe him for some reason.

I believe in him, and the reason is obvious. He gets things done nobody else seems able to.

SpaceX also blew up a huge amount of their Falcon rockets at the beginning too, and now they're consistently bringing astronauts to the ISS and payloads into orbit. So I'm not sure what your point is.

I'd rather have them fail their first 9 attempts that each take a month before succeeding, than succeeding on the first attempt that takes a decade.

Failure during research & development isn't necessarily a bad thing.

NASA/JPL have an ample history of blowing up experimental rockets. Same as the Russians. The Germans had it hard with the V2s as well

I'd recommend people to look up into those previous failures (and SpaceX is finding "new ways" to fail)

See the book "V2" by Dornberger on all the failures of the V2 rockets. Quite a good read.

lol. I rarely test my code, but when I do, I test it on prod.

Unit tests can't catch all bugs ;)

I met Collins many years later. I was a terminally shy child at the time so I don't remember much, but he graciously autographed his entry in ... some Encyclopedia of Space somethingsomething book I had. I should probably try to dig up that book and eBay it.

Anyways, RIP.

Michael Collins was one of many astronauts that claimed to have seen UFOs or at least firmly believe in extraterrestrial life.

I cried today. I don't cry when strangers die, famous strangers particularly. But I cried today when I heard he had passed. He was a profound man who deserves a profound eulogy. That's beyond my capabilities, but I'd like to give it a good shake anyway.

I never had the good fortune of crossing paths with him except for the one time he liked one of my tweets (I joked that I'd been touched by celebrity - he intensely disliked celebrities). But I want to take a moment to describe how much Michael Collins meant to me.

His book, Carrying The Fire, https://www.amazon.com/Carrying-Fire-Astronauts-Michael-Coll... is one of the reasons why I've decided to go into aerospace and take my shot at becoming an astronaut as an adult. He wrote parts of this book in orbit around the moon, and the rest when he came back to Earth. It is hard to describe the degree of tender self awareness that he possessed and the insight with which he wrote.

His book is one of the few books where the forwards are just as important as the book itself. Here's one he recently wrote,

> Could I be one of twelve of eighteen thousand? No way in hell.

It is rare for someone to acknowledge the locus at which the sum of their perspiration and preparation collided with the vagaries of fate. It is rarer still for them to say that had they been born later, or had the circumstances been any different, they might not have been the same. And it is far rarer for someone to talk about the mistakes of youth with this level of humor and care,

> Never mind the excuses, I was a mediocre student, more interested in athletics than academics. I was captain of the wrestling team, but even that was a bit tainted, as I was also a secret smoker. Stupid.

He had, as he admits in the forward, ADHD that went undiagnosed at the time. His teachers thought he was lazy, and he struggled in school. His grades were subpar, and at some point he woke up and he was thirty, writing,

> How had I managed to take so long to get so little done — no advanced degree, a piddling two thousand hours’ flying time, thirty years old, and nothing special in my record to offset these deficiencies?

A lot of books by people who have experienced what it is like to have history's eye upon them don't go into such details. And if they do, they tend to be written by others or they suffer from terminal self-aggrandizement. Collins' account doesn't suffer from this. It feels so raw and real, an inner exploration just as much an outer one.

It's as if we sent on Apollo 11 not just a preternaturally calm man with oodles of the Right Stuff (Neil Armstrong) and an orbital mechanics expert (Buzz Aldrin), but also a self-aware artist who recorded some of the most beautiful images of the trip and tried to capture the beauty of what he saw in front of him in verse. A man who can recite passages from Paradise Lost from heart and talks about the importance of bringing art and joy into the sciences. https://twitter.com/AstroMCollins/status/1313882376225734656

NASA chose well.

Here's one final quote from Carrying The Fire,

> Of course, Apollo was the god who carried the fiery sun across the sky in a chariot. But beyond that, how would you carry fire? Carefully, that's how, with lots of planning and at considerable risk. It is a delicate cargo, as valuable as moon rocks, and the carrier must always be on his toes lest it spill.

> I carried the fire for six years, and now I would like to tell you about it, simply and directly as a test pilot must, for the trip deserves the telling.

I lied. Here's another Michael Collins-ism,

> Farmers speak to farmers, students to students, business leaders to other business leaders, but this intramural talk serves mainly to mirror one's beliefs, to reinforce existing prejudices, to lock out opposing views


I'm holding a quasi-vigil for him on the aerospace club Small Steps & Giant Leaps in ClubHouse by reading Carrying the Fire personally or via the audiobook. You are welcome to join us and read a passage, a chapter, or whatever suits your fancy.

Here's the link, just come in the room and raise your hand, we'll pull you up :)



Here's an excellent interview of him from 2019 talking about SpaceX, Blue Origin, NASA, and Mars https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUtIO06N3sw

Very sad to hear, an inspiration to those who enjoy Space and the outer reaches of our atmosphere.

The greatest ambassador to the space effort. Always humble and selfless.

The ultimate designated driver.

Hearing him talk as part of this google (doodle?) moon landing 50th anniversary video is a good introduction to his perspective on moon landing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6VpHyKXHBM

This will always be my favorite Buzz video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Y-Pc0cz-9o

I'm convinced he will live forever. My mental health depends on it.

There's a fantastic song about Collin's role in Apollo 11 that perfectly captures his role in the mission: "sitting backstage vs. taking the fame".


I’d like to post the google moon doodle. Pretty good stuff and Michael Collins narrates: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=t6VpHyKXHBM

Appropriately he has died just after a full moon.

ad astra Mr. Collins

It turns out that https://xkcd.com/893/ was posted almost ten years ago. Although he didn't actually get to walk on the moon, he still went there.

The alt text is quite poignant.

> The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space--each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.

He didn't score the most points, but he got the most rebounds and assists.

This was the first thing I thought of. Thanks for posting.

I compared it with real data, the prediction is remarkably accurate:


Very accurate so far.

He was aged 90 years old.

Irish people should be sad that someone who fought for their independence has died.


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