Carrying the Fire
Author: Michael Collins
Tagline: An Astronaut’s Journeys
Publisher: Farrar, Staus, and Giroux
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography, History, Space Exploration, Engineering, Flight
Main Character: Michael Collins
Synopsis: In 1969, Michael Collins went to the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the historic Apollo 11 flight. When he came back, he wrote the finest account we have of the training and the experiences of a test pilot and astronaut. This is the story of one of the great adventures of this century.
Declassified by Agent Palmer: Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins is a must have for NASAphiles
Quotes and Lines
Perceptive, clear, and comprehensive, targeted on life’s first expedition to the moon’s surface, this book combines a contemplative mind and poet’s eye with the essentially practical approach of a participating astronaut. Here is a fascinating autobiographical account of one of civilization’s greatest adventures. It will be read and reread as long as records last.
(Foreword by Charles A Lindbergh)
Our future remains as potent as it was in Goddard’s time. Past accomplishments found thoughts of greater conquests. As Goddard’s dreams resulted in the spacecraft that today’s astronauts are crewing, advancing man may discover that thought and reality transpose like energy and matter.
Although undeniably autobiographical, I do not see it as a me-me-me kind of thing, but rather an insider’s factual and simple explanation of how the machines operated, who operated them, and what it was like living in an artificial, high-pressure environment.
I bore easily, and I have written for people who bore easily. If I have done my job properly, the reader will be able to pick the book up at any point and find something interesting going on, because that is the way Houston and the other space places were in the sixties. There was never a dull day, and there should be no boring pages.
We lived in a sloppy world, but we were precise, very precise. Our great fear was that we would not be able to use this precision, that we would be sent off somewhere to the bush leagues, that we would be assigned to fly endless circles in the sky while and engineer in the back of the planed twiddled with the dials of some new electronic box.
For every bonafide test pilot job in the Air Force, there are ten which masquerade under the name.
The opportunities for error are almost limitless, and only superlative design permits virtually error-free operation of a machine as complex as an Apollo command module.
We derived all the equations necessary to prove to the most hardened skeptic that a spacecraft could orbit the earth; the higher the slower, the lower the faster. Right? Right—if at one hundred miles, one orbit takes an hour and a half; if we go up to 22,300 miles, one orbit takes twenty-four hours. So what? Well, the earth also takes twenty-four hours to go around once, so that the 22,300-mile satellite will stay over the same spot on the ground, i.e. be synchronous with the earth’s rotation, which is fiendishly clever if you want to use it as a communications-relay satellite. Interesting applications or boring equations.
Pete Conrad’s battle cry: “If you can’t be good, be colorful!”
* All this from a veteran of Athletics Anonymous, that stellar organization which, when you feel the urge to exercise, will send someone over to drink with you until you return to your senses.
I had come a long way from Casa Blanca, but not because of any remarkable foresight on my part. I had had no master plan. The choices had simply been there and I had taken them, one step at a time. A free education at West Point or an expensive civilian one? Army career or Air Force? Pilot or ground officer? Fighters or transports? Test pilot training or more of the same? Fighter Ops or Wright-Patterson? Edwards of Houston? With one part shrewd logic and nine parts blind luck, I had qualified for Houston, and was now off to a different life, perhaps even to the moon.
If they wanted an emotional press conference, for Christ’s sake, they should have put together an Apollo crew of a philosopher, a priest, and a poet—not three test pilots. Of course, they wouldn’t get them back to have a press conference, in all likelihood, because this trio would probably emote all the way back into the atmosphere and forget to push in the circuit breaker which enabled the parachutes to open.
Wise or not, we were on our way, and I remember 1964 as a vintner might: “Young, still tasting of tannin, rough around the edges, but solid, with body, a spicy bouquet, and a strength suggesting greatness in five years’ time.”
Of course, my background as a test pilot was useless in this work, but then it was such a far-out field that no one else had any practical experience to call upon either. It was simply a case of hopefully reasonable men making hopefully reasonable guesses, which could be verified only by in-flight experiments. In retrospect, I think we made only one fundamental mistake: without gravity to hold you in one place (“down”), you can use all your attention and energy simply maintaining the status quo.
But I guess the basic reason I run is that I think a body, like a brain, should be used, stretched, forced to its limits. Just as the concept of celibacy is abhorrent to me, so do I feel sorry for those who will never know the desperate pound of 180 beats per minute, or the golden afterglow of recovery from it. The body machine, like a flying machine, can be operated with greater enjoyment, poise, and confidence if one has explored its limits.
All that stuff about crew psychological compatibility is crap. Almost anyone can put up with almost anyone else for a clearly defined period of time in pursuit of a mutual objective important to each.
I keep six honest men
(They taught me all I knew):
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
—Rudyard Kipling, “The Elephant’s Child”
—the real game was the mental one, and it was played in the simulators.
…it was an intellectual fear, not an emotional one. I don’t know if I can explain the difference, except to say that under the heading of intellectual fear I list such things as getting cancer (and I’m frankly afraid of that), while emotional fear would include watching aerialists high-wring at a circus without a net (and they scare hell out of me). Intellectual fear is an armchair admission of the frailty of human life, while emotional fear is a viscera-gripping, panic-inducing reaction of the brain and body.
Actually, this EVA shouldn’t be that tough, but a little melodrama usually doesn’t hurt a performance.
It’s certainly not the blinding speed of the Indianapolis 500. The rate at which something appears in the window, crosses it, and vanishes is not much faster than in a commercial airliner. That is because our much faster orbital velocity is balanced by our higher altitude, so that angular changes (the most important visual cues of speed) are still within the realm of the commonplace.
In a test pilot’s world, boring is good, because it means that you haven’t been surprised, that your planning has been precise and your expectations matched. Conversely, excitement means surprise, and that generally is bad.
The earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind will not stay in the cradle forever.
…when Lovell described it as “a grand oasis in the great vastness of space.”
The Gemini had been small, comparatively simple, and could almost be flown like a fighter. The Apollo, on the other hand, was too big, too heavy, and too complex to make sprightly maneuvers. Flying it was, as John Young described it, like driving an aircraft carrier with an outboard motor. It also required a lot of savvy and foresight, and a devotion to the path of righteousness as described by the check list.
The United States this week will commit its national pride, eight years of work and $24 billion of its fortune to showing the world it can still fulfill a dream.
It will send three young men on a human adventure of mythological proportions with the whole of the civilized world invited to watch—for better or worse.
—Rudy Abramson, Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1969
In the astronaut office, one of the most common greetings was an accusatory “Aren’t you supposed to be in the simulator?” and the usual answer was “Yeah, but the frapping thing bombed out again.”
There were actually eleven points along the Apollo 11 flight path that merited special attention, and I tried to distribute my training time in such a way that I was familiar enough with them to perform my routine chores smoothly and to understand the equipment design and its use well enough to cope with failures that might reasonably be expected to occur.
Entry. Diving into the earth’s atmosphere at precisely the right angle was required for a successful splash, not to mention the flawless on-time performance of the parachute system and related claptrap. I could fly the entry phase, because, of course, I had to learn how to do it all in case I came back from the moon without Neil and Buzz.
The two partners make quite a contrast, the rocket sleek and poised and full of promise, the tower old, gnarled, ungainly, and going nowhere.
To a Husband Who Must Seek the Stars
In your eyes the first glad token
As when first our love we proved,
So you mind to mine has spoken
Just as if your lips had moved.
You are saying—yes, I know—
That the lure of space beguiles.
You are pleading—”Let me go,”
Not unwilling, but with smiles.
Can you love me, and still choose
Whispers that I cannot hear?
Late to love, how can I bear to lose
Content for some inconstant sphere?
Tell me how you see my role—
To stay, to wait, yet yearn to go.
Where is the comfort for my soul?
You, my love, have helped me know:
I’ll be unafraid, undaunted.
Yes, of course! I need not face
Any peril; or be haunted
By the hazards you embrace.
I could have sought by wt or wile
Your bright dream to dim. And yet
If I’d swayed you with a smile
My reward would be regret.
So, for once, you shall not hear
Of the tears, unbidden, welling;
Or the nighttime stabs of fear.
These, this time, are not for telling.
Take my silence, though intended;
Fill it with the joy you feel.
Take my courage, now pretended—
You, my love, will make it real.
This elevator ride, the first vertical nudge, has marked the beginning of Apollo 11, for we cannot touch the earth any longer.
(counting all the various little motors on the Saturn, the service module, and the command module, we have seventy-two engines—and me a single-engine pilot by inclination)
This is true of all phases of space flight: any pilot knows from ready-room fable or bitter experience that the length of the runway behind him is the most useless measurement he can take; it’s what’s up ahead that matters.
The news is pretty thin: the Russian space probe, Luna 15, has preceded us to the moon by a couple of days. We are not concerned by its presence, but apparently the people on the ground are, and the long-distance wires between Washington and Moscow have nearly gotten burned up making sure that our two trajectories will not intersect somewhere around the moon.
It is lousy coffee, but at least it’s lukewarm and familiar, and reminds me vaguely of earth mornings.
I remember last December, during the flight of Apollo 8, my five-year-old son had one, and only one, specific question: who was driving? Was it his friend Mr. Borman? One night when it was quiet in Mission Control I relayed this concern of his to the spacecraft, and Bill Anders promptly replied that no, not Borman, but Isaac Newton was driving. A truer or more concise description of flying between earth and moon is not possible. The sun is pulling us, the earth is pulling us, the moon is pulling us, just as Newton predicted they would.
Still . . . the possibilities of weightlessness are there for the ingenious to exploit. No need to carry bras in space, that’s for sure. Imagine a spacecraft of the future, with a crew of a thousand ladies, off for Alpha Centauri, with two thousand breasts bobbing beautifully and quivering delightfully in response to their every weightless movement . . . and I am the commander of the craft and it is Saturday morning and time for inspection, naturally . . .
It’s not long before these mathematical computations destroy the wonder of it all, or at least balance the frivolity of the big mothers, and I am forced to admit, “Amazing how quickly you adapt, why it doesn’t seem weird at all to me to look out there and see the moon going by, you know.”
I know from pre-flight press questions that I will be described as a lonely man (“Not since Adam has any man experienced such loneliness”), and I guess that the TV commentators must be reveling in my solitude and deriving all sorts of phony philosophy from it, but I hope not. Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know 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 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 only knows what on this side. I feel this powerfully—not as fear or loneliness—but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars—and that is all.
Of the two quantities, time and distance, time tends to be a much more personal one, so that I feel simultaneously closer to, and farther away from, Houston that I would if I were on some remote spot on earth which would deny me conversation with other humans for months on end.
In case I have not heard, they also let me know about the plan to go EVA before sleeping. “Sounds good to me,” I say. “Tell them to eat some lunch before they do.” The Jewish mother is in orbit.
Goddamn. I want to hear what’s going on. “O.K. I haven’t heard a word from those guys, and I thought I’d be hearing them through your S-band relay.” I don’t care so much right now, because they are still about two hours away from depressurizing the LM, but when they get out on the surface, I want to be able to hear them. What will Neil say, for instance? He hasn’t confided any magic first words to me, but I’ll bet he has some. Neil doesn’t waste words, but that doesn’t mean he can’t use them; he nearly always rises to an occasion, and if ever man had anything to say, this is the time. I want to hear him!
My God, the juxtaposition of the incongruous: roll, pitch, and yaw; prayers, peace, and tranquility.
“Eagle, Columbia passing over the landing site. It sure is great to look down there and not see you!” Not that I ever did see them on the surface, but to pass over and know they are not stranded down there is worth the price of the entire Apollo program to me.
Oops, one never swears on the radio—perhaps that’s why I swear so much otherwise.
TEI. Transearth injection. NASA jargon has an uncanny knack of disguising the meaning of even the most obvious things. This is the get-us-home burn, the save-our-ass burn, and they call it TEI.
That’s how I like space flight to be, slow and easy and no excitement, please. Old Columbia is ticking along like a fine Swiss watch.
Jesus, they could fly this command module one hundred times, and on the one hundred and first, some engineer somewhere would come up with a procedure that he was convinced should replace all its predecessors.
The speeches were O.K., I believe, mine more superficial than the others but more heartfelt, I thought; anyway, not bad for three engineering test pilots. I wonder what my favorite crew of philosopher-priest-poet might have said, or their back-up crew of psychiatrist-philologist-philistine? Or has a philistine somehow slipped onto the real crew?
I wonder whether all Apollo crews are satisfied to remain amiable strangers?
“This is Jim, Mike. Back-up crew is still standing by. I just wanted to remind you that the most difficult part of your mission is going to be after recovery.”
God, it’s nice to be back! Never more am I going flying in NASA’s sky. Gemini 10, Apollo 11—between the two I must have had twenty lifetimes’ worth of opportunities to destroy myself; yet miraculously, here I sit, drinking my martini and please as hell with myself. An old fighter pilot friend of mine used to say after every flight, “Well, I cheated death again.” The first couple of times I heard him, I was shocked at his sarcasm, his brashness, his cynicism, or his honest, but what the hell, why not say it?
Unlike Gemini 10, which ended the instant we hit the water, this flight will never truly be over in my lifetime (such is the distinct impression I get from the newspapers), but I may wish that it were.
Being an astronaut is a tough act to follow, as all three of us have discovered.
In the course of this, I gained some interesting pen pals, but my favorite was a lady in New York who simply returned all correspondence with a huge BULLSHIT stamped on each page. Who knows, historians may yet record this as the Bullshit Era.
Being an astronaut was the most interesting job I ever expect to have, but I wanted to leave before I became stale in it, and I could tell that after Apollo 11 I could not have prevented myself from sliding downhill, in terms of enthusiasm and concentration.
…for it seems to me that the list of exciting things to do here on earth has diminished greatly in the wake of lunar landings. I just can’t get excited about things the way I could before Apollo 11; I seem gripped by an earthly ennui which I don’t relish, but which I seem powerless to prevent.
It is the curse of flying in space, this business of answering the same question one million times. There should be a statute of limitations on it.
Howard Muson in The New York Times Magazine describes the returning astronaut as “the wandering hero back among his tribe, after stealing the sacred fire and grappling with terrifying demons, condemned to ask tough questions.” It is an apt description, although I never felt I stole anybody’s fire (I merely carried it through the sky), and the demons with whom I have grappled have generally been dressed by Lord and Taylor’s. But tough questions, that is right on target. The toughest, of course, is, Was it worth it all?
Was it worth it all? It certainly was to me personally, which obviously makes me suspect as an objective witness to the expenditure of $24 billion of the taxpayers’ money. Besides, I frankly gave little thought to the financial end of the space program, just as I never considered what percentage of the GNP Flash Gordon might reasonably twit away exploring the caverns of Mongo.
Apollo 11 was perceived by most Americans as being an end, rather than a beginning, and I think that is a dreadful mistake. Frequently, NASA’s PR department is blamed for this, but I don’t think NASA could have prevented it. It’s simply the American way, to view a televised spectacular and think of it as the Super Bowl. Then followed confusion and a trace of irritation. Why was the Super Bowl being played over and over again?
Perhaps my own involvement in Apollo 11 causes me to put too much emphasis on it, but it seems to me that the space program was too popular before the first lunar landing and not popular enough after it. The pendulum swings back and forth across the truth, and it will take some time for future historians to put Apollo in its proper perspective.
Although I certainly don’t expect ever again to do anything as dramatic as carrying the fire of space flight, I do expect always to have interesting projects in work, so that I can devote my energies to planning the future rather than ruminating over the past.
By and large, one brings back from the moon the same limitations of pocketbook, imagination, and taste that one took on the trip, and one is stuck with them.
There seem to be two moons now, the one I see in my back yard and the one I remember from up close.
If I could use only one word to describe the earth as seen from the moon, I would ignore both its size and color and search for a more elemental quality, that of fragility. The earth appears “fragile,” above all else. I don’t know why, but it does.