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What did Michael Collins think of when he was alone behind the moon?

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Astronaut Michael Collins died this Wednesday, April 28, 2021. The man was particularly illustrated during the Apollo 11 mission as pilot of the Columbia spacecraft. As his two colleagues made history on the surface, Collins had been left alone for over 45 minutes as he passed “to the other side of the moon.” How did he live this experience?

Of the three men who made history in July 1969, only one remains: Buzz Aldrin. While Neil Armstrong left us in 2012, Michael Collins joined him yesterday, after a valiant fight against the disease. “Mike has always faced life’s challenges with grace and humility, and faced that challenge, his last challenge, in the same way.“, Said his relatives in a statement. “He will be sorely missed. Yet we also know how lucky Mike was to have lived the life he lived.“.

Today the nation has lost a true pioneer and longtime exploration advocate.“Said Steve Jurczyk, acting administrator of NASA. “As the pilot of the Apollo 11 command module, as two of his colleagues walked the moon for the first time, he helped our nation take a decisive step“.

A peaceful moment

During the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, as Armstrong and Aldrin descended on the lunar surface, Collins, orbiting a hundred miles above their heads, thus remained alone in his spacecraft, remaining out of range. any communication for more than 45 minutes while passing to the other side of the Moon. For this reason, some went on to call him “the loneliest man in history”.

I’m alone now, really alone and absolutely isolated from all known life“, He wrote later in his 1974 memoir (Carrying the Fire), thinking back to this event.

Collins was alone, indeed, but this moment, he lived it serenely. “Behind the Moon it was very peaceful – no one at Mission Control bothered me to do this or that.“, He said two years ago at an Explorer’s Club event in New York. “So I was very happy, it was a peaceful place“.

Michael Collins in 1969 in a command module simulator. Credit: NASA, scanned by NASA Johnson

Worried about mice

Collins, however, revealed that his experience in orbiting the Moon was not all peace and quiet. As he reviewed possible rendezvous maneuvers with the lunar module, the astronaut was indeed worried about his friends – a bunch of little white mice.

On their return from their mission, the Apollo 11 astronauts spent several weeks in quarantine alongside several rodents that had just been exposed to lunar samples. Scientists watched them for any sign of distress.

The idea was that if the mice got sick or started exhibiting strange behaviors, the team that monitored the crew members would know that they might have brought “moon germs” with them. Finally, and fortunately, all of the mice behaved well.

This is how Michael Collins lived his experience around the Moon, far from all life on Earth: he enjoyed a well-deserved break with the mission controllers, and thought of a colony of mice.

Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong seen inside the mobile quarantine facility on the return trip to port aboard the USS Hornet. Credit: NASA

An impressive career

Of course, Collins didn’t stand out only during the Apollo 11 mission. Born in Rome in October 1930, he turned to a career in the Air Force to serve as a fighter pilot. From 1959 to 1963, he also served as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, logging over 4,200 flight hours.

Collins was then selected as a NASA astronaut in October 1963. His first flight was as a pilot of the Gemini mission 10, in July 1966. After having served as CAPCOM (capsule communicator) for Apollo 8, relaying the information between mission control and the crew, he then followed up with Apollo 11. In total, the astronaut will have flown more than 266 hours in space.

Collins retired from the Air Force as a Major General and left NASA in 1970. He then became Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. In 1971, he joined the Smithsonian Institution as director of the National Air and Space Museum, before being appointed vice president of LTV Aerospace and Defense Co. in 1980.

Five years later, he left office to become an independent consultant and lecture on space, before taking a well-deserved retirement.


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