The Forgotten Astronaut

The first man walked on the moon 50 years ago this July when I was but 12 years old. I was absolutely fired up about the subject having read the wonderful Time-Life series of hardback magazines on the US space programme. We didn’t have much in the way of TV (we were living in West Africa) so I didn’t see the coverage till many years later, but I stood in our garden that night and stared up at the moon, knowing that the world had changed because a man had walked on its surface for the first time.

Space travel has always given me a tingle – not so much the reading of it in science fiction tales, but the actual happening of it in my life. During a holiday in Florida, I was massively excited to learn that the Space Shuttle was going up. We stood on the roof of my sister’s car and gazed towards Cape Canaveral, my heart beating with pure inadulterated excitement to just be there.

Michael CollinsAlthough the first man himself – Neil Armstrong – has been lost to this world some 7 years, we are still fortunate in having Buzz Aldrin – making his good humoured cameos on The Big Bang Theory – and Michael Collins. My huge thanks go to writer, teacher, librarian, reviewer and blogger Sue Bursztynski for recommending his book Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey which was recently re-issued.

Originally published in the 1970s, there are some signs of age – the occasional comment appreciating female pin-ups are unlikely to have been written in this day & age – but otherwise, the march of time hasn’t dulled this read.

Written without the assistance of a ghost writer, Michael Collins’ voice comes through loud and clear. A self-depracating man, a man who believed himself to be lucky having been born in the right time & place, despite being a top notch test pilot with the personal qualities one would hope to find in a crewmate. This is a great tale, covering his recruitment to the astronaut programme (at the second try), his two flights – one Gemini, one Apollo – and his decision to withdraw from the programme after Apollo 11.

What came through strongly is what an excellent choice he was for the man to remain on the command module while his crewmates undertook the dangerous task of landing on the surface of the moon. For although the entire mission went smoothly, there were enormous fears – felt by NASA, and not just Collins – that he would have to return alone, if the worst happened. Not an easy burden for any man to carry. Instead, all went well, and he’s become “the forgotten Apollo 11 astronaut”. If he’d remained in the Apollo programme, he’d have had his own chance to walk on the moon in a later flight, but he was entirely content. And that’s what comes through strongly – Collins is a content man, content with his life and with the choices he’s made – and who could ask for more out of life?

Reading this book followed hard on the heels of my watching the film First Man – last year’s drama about the moon landing seen largely through the lens of Neil Armstrong. One excellent review described the film as “putting its audience inside a tin can as it shakes and rattles its claustrophobic way into the sky” and indeed, it does a good job of reminding us just how dangerous this journey truly was.

While NASA’s astronauts were dubbed as having ‘the Right Stuff’, what is also clear (from the film as well as Collins’ book) is the extraordinary stresses their wives had to cope with all while under overwhelming media attention. The scene where Janet Armstrong insists her husband speak to their children before he departs speaking volumes.

For the final word, I’m returning to Michael Collins. In an interview some 10 years ago, he commented “some things about current society irritate me, such as the adulation of celebrities and inflation of heroism. Heroes abound, but don’t count astronauts among them. We worked very hard, we did our jobs to near perfection, but that is what we had been hired to do.”

What are your feelings about the space race – an outrageous waste of money,  mankind at its finest, or …?


© Debra Carey, 2019

6 comments

  1. Mankind at its finest hour. Nothing has come close to being as significant as landing a man on the moon. Nor has anything brought the world together in quite the same way since July 1969.

    [We live near the venue where Neil Armstrong’s private funeral service took place. When the Air Force did their funeral fly over they went over our house. It was cool beans.]

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  2. Not a waste at the time and a wonderful achievement by all concerned, including the forgotten women (Hidden Figures)> However, mankind has too many problems on Earth to spend the money to explore further while there are issues like climate change, global pollution for science to resolve before we reach Mars, for instance.

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  3. Definitely not a waste! Not now either – so many things we take for granted now were first created for the space program. Unfortunately it has gone downhill since then. British SF author Stephen Baxter wrote a novel based on his theory that if we hadn’t wasted time on the shuttle program, we could have reached Mars by about 1989. I found it very convincing.

    Michael Collins is my favourite of the three astronauts. He has done a number of other books, one of which I used for research in my space book and articles. You’re right – he IS a content man. A while back, he was asked in an interview if he would like to go back to the moon. He said no, though he would go to Mars tomorrow of asked!

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  4. Ally, that IS cool beans indeed 😀 Glad you share my view on the moon landing’s great significance.

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  5. Roland, you’re absolutely spot on about the support team, especially those immortalised in Hidden Figures. I enjoyed both the book & the film very much.

    A lot of space writing (TV & film) is based upon people escaping earth for a variety of reasons, although only rarely relating to climate-related devastation. I cannot decide between space exploration now being a genuine need for that reason, and worrying that it’s a handy reason for ignoring what’s going on here by allowing us to assume escape into space is a reality.

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  6. Hi Sue, I’ve much enjoyed Stephen Baxter’s collaborations with Terry Pratchett but have yet to read his sole work. That one sounds really interesting and mirrors my thoughts to a large degree so I’ll seek it out.

    The more I read of his book, the more I warmed to Michael Collins – as well as admired him, so my thanks again for the recommendation.

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