Thursday, April 29, 2021

Reading | Carrying The Fire

Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys | Michael Collins

If you would like to know what it was really like to be an American astronaut back in the 1960s glory days of the manned flight program, read this book. Michael Collins may be best remembered as the third wheel of Apollo 11, the historic first-man-on-the-moon flight; the guy who drove the mother ship around and around the moon while his crew mates explored the surface, but his before- and after-stories put that incredible achievement into the context of a long, interesting life. With a delightful balance of NASA techno-babble and good old-fashioned yarns, Collins tells his fascinating story with a deft touch. Ever self-effacing, he acknowledges his monumental role in history with an aw-shucks humility that reads as both genuine and incredibly touching. There are plenty of books written by and about the astronauts of this generation, but for my money, this one is the best. 

* * * * *

I recall with startling accuracy my opinions of the Apollo 11 astronauts. Of course I knew them all by name, just as other children knew major league baseball players or the members of the Beatles - and I held my own childish opinions about their relative merit. Neil Armstrong, straight and serious, kinda handsome for an old guy, held sway as the ultimate hero. Buzz Aldrin played the role of his equally competent but kooky sidekick, and the third member of the crew, Michael Collins, was... who knew? Poor guy flew all the way to the moon just to wait in the Command Module while the other guys bounded across the rocky surface in one-sixth gravity, like a parent dropping off the kids at an out-of-town birthday party with an inflatable bouncy house and circling the block till they were ready to go home. During the heady days of the Apollo program, little-kid-me knew precious little about Michael Collins but based on what I did know, felt quite sorry for him.

“We are off! And do we know it, not just because the world is yelling ‘Liftoff’ in our ears, but because the seats of our pants tell us so! Trust your instruments, not your body, the modern pilot is always told, but this beast is best felt. Shake, rattle and roll!”

Well. This book surely straightened me out. What I learned all these decades later is that while Armstrong did indeed project pure intellect, and Aldrin was at least nine-tenths a self-absorbed showman, Michael Collins embodied all the qualities I admired most in the astronauts. Smart as a whip, yes, but also deeply committed to preparation with keen attention to detail and his eyes glued to the ever-present checklists. He carried a sharp tongue and a quick wit, often on display during his on-air chats with Houston, and a flair for curse words, which he tried to keep under wraps. 

As for his role as limo driver for his moon-walking crew mates, Michael Collins saw his destiny quite differently. His duty to fly alone in the Apollo 11 Command Module while the others landed on the moon was not a second-rate errand but a role absolutely essential to the success of their shared mission. Like the mythical Apollo, Michael Collins carried the fire that had propelled them a quarter million miles to the moon and then brought them back home. Neil and Buzz would have never made it without him. 

“I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher… we might get a much better idea of what we saw.”

Once safely returned to earth, he continued to stand straight and tall. Though many of his colleagues stumbled through more than their fair share of drama in their post-astronaut lives - because, really, when one has been to the moon, what does one do for an encore? - Michael Collins settled down as a devoted family man, a reluctant hero, a newly productive citizen, and a pretty good fisherman. Humble and generous, he really did live happily ever after. 

* * * * * 

After finishing this book - and immediately flipping back to page one and starting to read every delightful word all over again - I've been consumed with the idea of reaching out to Michael Collins in real life. As far as I could tell, he was still puttering around the waters of South Florida with his fishing poles, a widower now after losing his beloved wife, Pat, but still under the watchful care of his my-age daughters. Based on what I'd learned about him, I figured that Michael would be much happier if I kept my admiration to myself, but still, I've had a strong sense that his ninety-years-long life would not go on forever, and any chance to reach out to him was a window that might close at any time. 

“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. 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 knows what on this side.”

This morning, I read that Michael Collins has died. Peacefully, surrounded by his family, as gently as cancer will let anyone go. I'm sad that his long, illustrious life is over, and the world a bit dimmed as his brilliant light flickers out. But his contribution to space travel, and even better, his lovely way of being, have left us all the better. Thank you, Michael Collins, for carrying the fire during your remarkable life here on earth, and I'll catch up with you in heaven. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please comment...I'd love to hear from you!