Q & A with Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins

by Nancy Atkinson on July 15, 2009

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Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins. Credit: GeekoutNewYork

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins. Credit: GeekoutNewYork

Michael Collins has always been one of my favorite people (I even wrote a song about him). He’s funny, he’s humble, he’s passionate, he’s a great writer, and oh yeah — he’s an astronaut. Collins was the command module pilot for Apollo 11 and he also flew on Gemini X in 1966.

Now, at 78 years of age, Collins decided not to give any media interviews during the hubbub of the Apollo 11 40th anniversary, and instead issued a Q & A of the questions he is most frequently asked. He did a great job of being both the interviewer and the interviewee, showing his humorous and honest nature. Collins took some of his answers from his book, Carrying the Fire, and any of the following sections in quotation marks are from that reference. Read on and find out for yourself if Mike Collins is a grumpy recluse!

Q. Circling the lonely moon by yourself, the loneliest person in the universe, weren’t you lonely?

A. No.

“Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two. I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, 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.”

Collins suiting up for Apollo 11.  Credit: NASA

Collins suiting up for Apollo 11. Credit: NASA


Q. Did you have the best seat on Apollo 11?

A. No.

“The cancellation of 014 also freed Borman-Stafford-Collins for reassignment, and reassigned we were, but not as a unit. Tom Stafford moved up a notch and acquired his own highly experienced crew, John Young and Gene Cernan; they became McDivitt’s back-up. Score one for Tom. Borman and Collins got promoted to prime crew of the third
manned flight, picking up Bill Anders as our third member.

In the process, Collins also got ‘promoted’ from lunar module pilot to command module pilot, and lost right then and there his first chance to walk on the surface of the moon. The reason I had to move up was that Deke at that time had a firm rule that the command module pilot on all flights involving LM must have flown before in space, the idea being that he didn’t want any rookie in the CM by himself. Since Bill and Anders had not flown, I was it. Slowly it sunk in. No LM for me, no EVA, no fancy flying, no need to practice in helicopters anymore.”

Q. Were you happy with the seat you had?

A. Yes, absolutely. It was an honor.

Q. Has the space program helped young people become interested in careers in math and science? Don’t you tell kids to opt for these choices?

A. Yes and no. We definitely have a national problem in that kids seem to be going for money rather than what they consider ‘nerdy’ careers. Other countries are outstripping us in the quality and quantity of math and science grads, and this can only hurt in the long run. But a liberal arts education, particularly English, is a good entry point no matter what the later specialization. I usually talk up English.

Q. Turning to your flight, what is your strongest memory of Apollo 11?

A. Looking back at Earth from a great distance.

“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.”

Small, shiny, serene, blue and white, FRAGILE.

Q. That was 40 years ago. Would it look the same today?

A. Yes, from the moon, but appearances can be deceiving. It’s certainly not serene, but definitely fragile, and growing more so. When we flew to the moon, our population was 3 billion; today it has more than doubled and is headed for 8 billion, the experts say. I do
not think this growth is sustainable or healthy. The loss of habitat, the trashing of oceans, the accumulation of waste products – this is no way to treat a planet.

Q. You are starting to sound a little grumpy. Are you grumpy?

A. At age 78, yes, in many ways. Some things about current society irritate me, such as the adulation of celebrities and the inflation of heroism.

Collins' official astronaut photo. Credit: NASA

Collins' official astronaut photo. Credit: NASA


Q. But aren’t you both?

A. Not me. Neither.

Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don’t count astronauts among them. We work very hard; we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do. In no way did we meet the criterion of the Congressional Medal of Honor: ‘above and beyond the call of duty.’

Celebrities? What nonsense, what an empty concept for a person to be, as my friend the great historian Daniel Boorstin put it, “known for his well-known-ness.” How many live-ins, how many trips to rehab, maybe–wow–you could even get arrested and then you would really be noticed. Don’t get me started.

Q. So, if I wanted to sum you up, I should say “grumpy?”

A. No, no, lucky! Usually, you find yourself either too young or too old to do what you really want, but consider: Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, Buzz Aldrin 1930, and Mike Collins 1930. We came along at exactly the right time. We survived hazardous careers and we were successful in them. But in my own case at least, it was 10 percent shrewd planning and 90 percent blind luck. Put LUCKY on my tombstone.

Q. Okay, but getting back to the space program. What’s next?

A. I hope Mars. It was my favorite planet as a kid and still is. As celestial bodies go, the moon is not a particularly interesting place, but Mars is. It is the closest thing to a sister planet that we have found so far. I worry that at NASA’s creeping pace, with the emphasis on returning to the moon, Mars may be receding into the distance. That’s about all I have to say.

Q. I understand you have become a recluse.

A. I’m not sure that’s the word. I think of the Brown Recluse, the deadliest of spiders, and I have a suntan, so perhaps. Anyway, it’s true I’ve never enjoyed the spotlight, don’t know why, maybe it ties in with the celebrity thing.

Q. So, how do you spend your time?

A. Running, biking, swimming, fishing, painting, cooking, reading, worrying about the stock market, searching for a really good bottle of cabernet under ten dollars. Moderately busy.

Q. No TV?

A. A few nature programs, and the Washington Redskins, that’s about it.

Q. Do you feel you’ve gotten enough recognition for your accomplishments?

A. Lordy, yes, Oodles and oodles.

Q. Oodles?? But don’t you have any keen insights?

A. Oh yeah, a whole bunch, but I’m saving them for the 50th.

For more information about Michael Collins, read his books (Carrying the Fire, Flying to the Moon)or check out his official NASA astronaut biography.

Source: Michael Collins, via NASA

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

rarchimedes July 16, 2009 at 6:10 AM

What a waste of a rare opportunity. This man is a whole lot more about the future than he is the past…why not ask him about that future. Ask him what he thinks of the Ares rockets. Ask him what he thinks of the new candidate for NASA administrator. Ask him about something that really matters to the future of space, but the same tired old stuff can be found in an hundred other places.

ToSeek July 16, 2009 at 8:03 PM

Michael Collins is legendary in the DC area as well as the first director of the National Air and Space Museum, which under his leadership opened ahead of schedule and within budget – an astounding achievement for any government project.

(Apollo met the schedule but definitely not the original budget.)

Sili July 17, 2009 at 3:00 PM

rarchimedes ,

I think you missed the point. He asked these questions, himself.

And I was quite amused. I hope he’s still around for the fiftieth. And the next landing.

If you want to talk about stupid interviews, listen to Buzz Aldrin on The Guardian Science Podcast last week. That interviewer came across as rude and in too much of a hurry to listen.

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