On Apollo 11 Anniversary, A Former Crew Member Reflects On The Lunar Trip

Jul 20, 2019
Originally published on July 22, 2019 1:23 pm

Humans first landed on the moon 50 years ago on July 20. Former astronaut Michael Collins was a member of the historic mission.

: 7/19/19

In an early version of the audio, we incorrectly referred to the far side of the moon as the dark side of the moon.

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL ARMSTRONG: Out of detent. Auto.

BUZZ ALDRIN: Mode control, both auto. Descent engine command override, off.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Fifty years ago today, human beings landed on the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES DUKE: We copy you down, Eagle.

ARMSTRONG: Houston...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

ARMSTRONG: ...Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

SIMON: Six and a half hours later, 9:56 p.m. in Houston, 4:56 a.m. in Paris, 10:56 a.m. in Beijing...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARMSTRONG: OK, I'm going to step off the LEM now.

SIMON: ...Neil Armstrong stood in the bottom rung at the Lunar Excursion Module to step into history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

SIMON: We asked a man who helped get there what people of a certain age are asked all the time.

Where were you when man landed on the moon?

MICHAEL COLLINS: You know, I really don't know. I was in an orbit...

SIMON: (Laughter).

COLLINS: ...That went around the moon at 15 miles. So sometimes I was over where I could see the dinky little Earth, and sometimes I was over behind the moon. I don't know where I was when they landed - tell you the truth.

SIMON: Michael Collins. His name is on the plaque Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left on the surface of the moon. But he's the man they left behind in orbit in command of their Apollo 11 spacecraft. As they landed on the moon, he circled it, often on the far side, where radio waves were blocked. He was on his own, left to circle a moon that was desolate, save for the two humans he often couldn't hear. Commentators at the time said no other human being in history, or at least since Adam, had ever been so profoundly alone. Michael Collins says he grew tired of being asked.

COLLINS: Weren't you the loneliest person in the whole lonely history of the lonely Earth and in lonely orbit behind the back of the lonely Earth? Weren't you lonely? And I thought, no, not in any way, shape or form.

SIMON: (Laughter).

COLLINS: I mean, loneliness - some people are loneliest - lonely for a lifetime or a month or a year. I mean, for eight days to and from, I don't think loneliness really comes into the equation, except it seemed to in the minds of the press at the time.

SIMON: What did we learn by landing on the moon?

COLLINS: Well, we learned, for one thing, how to overcome the gravity of the Earth so that if we wanted to go elsewhere, we were capable of doing it. And that is - I think is a wonderfully valuable thing for mankind to have, whether you land on the moon or whether you go elsewhere. So first, it was that.

And second, I thought, from a human point of view, it was a very unusual undertaking in that - well, after the flight, for example, Neil, Buzz and I were visiting about 29 different cities around the world. Everywhere we went, people said we did it.

We, humanity, we left this dinky little planet, and we went elsewhere. And I don't know of any event before or since that's had that kind of unanimity. And I think that's a wonderful contribution that Apollo did make for a little while. Under its limited circumstances, everyone everywhere seemed united behind what we had done.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLINS: Neil and Buzz, the president of the United States is in his office now and would like to say a few words to you, over.

SIMON: President Nixon spoke to the two astronauts who took halting, bouncing steps on the surface of another world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: Hello, Neil and Buzz. I'm talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made.

SIMON: Do you wish you'd been able to walk on the moon?

COLLINS: Absolutely, yes. Am I dissatisfied with the part that I played? Absolutely not. And so I had it both ways, really.

SIMON: Do you ever look up at the moon nowadays?

COLLINS: Not on purpose, no. I'll be walking down, shuffling down the sidewalk after dark. And all of a sudden, I'll kind of look up and go, whoa.

SIMON: (Laughter).

COLLINS: Oh, I went there one time.

SIMON: (Laughter).

COLLINS: You know, I mean, it sort of takes me by surprise.

SIMON: Michael Collins is 88 now, still charming and vigorous and often wry. He says the real revelation of the mission for him was less to behold the moon but our own blue home in the dark of the solar system.

COLLINS: I usually get asked what the moon looked like up close, and that's an interesting question with a lot of good answers. But to me, even though I was sitting on its front doorstep, to me, the moon was nothing compared to the Earth. The Earth was it - it was the whole show.

SIMON: Yeah.

COLLINS: Even though it was only, you know, about the size of your thumbnail, you could move your thumb out of the way, but it kind of kept inching its way back into your presence, as if it wanted to be looked at and seen and...

SIMON: Wow.

COLLINS: ...Understood. And the first thing, of course, is it's just tiny - tiny against a black velvet background, which makes it look more prominent. You get the very bright colors of the blue of the ocean, the white of the clouds...

SIMON: Yeah.

COLLINS: ...And the smear of rust that we call continents. Put all that together, and it's just a glorious thing. You could just sit and watch it all day long...

SIMON: Wow.

COLLINS: ...Out your window. I could just have spent day after day, week after week looking at the tiny little Earth.

SIMON: Michael Collins left the space program after his mission around the moon. He wrote a best-selling memoir, became an assistant secretary of state for public affairs and then director of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. He did something historic, bold and dangerous for his country and the world.

I get one last question.

COLLINS: OK.

SIMON: Why should we go into space?

COLLINS: Why?

SIMON: Yeah.

COLLINS: When someone asks me why we should go into space, I desert the world of facts and figures and come down on a world of emotions. When I was a kid, I just liked to lie on my back on the night grass and look up and see what I could see. Most of it I couldn't understand. That made it all the more intriguing.

But to have that around me, I guess I could turn that over and say I don't want to live with a lid over my head. I would like that lid to be removed. I would like to have the possibilities that - exist there in that third dimension, and that we have the possibility now of visiting a lot of them. That's why we should go into space, I believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN KING SONG, "EVERYONE'S GONE TO THE MOON")

SIMON: God bless you. What an honor to talk to you, Michael Collins.

COLLINS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYONE'S GONE TO THE MOON")

JONATHAN KING: (Singing) Streets full of people all alone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.