A couple of months ago, the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing was remembered with numerous documentaries and interviews, as well as special celebratory events. Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Buzz Aldrin had trod on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969.
The milestone prompted me to reread the autobiography of Michael Collins, the third astronaut of the Apollo 11 crew. “Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys” (Farrar, Straus and Geroux) had originally been published in 1974, and he’d written new prefaces for new editions published in 2009 and 2019.
The eloquent foreword to the book is impressive. It was written by Charles Lindbergh.
What’s fascinating about “Carrying The Fire” from a presentation point of view is Collins reportedly wrote it without the assistance of a ghostwriter. It’s a fascinating and well-organized read that comes across as a conversational and confident narrative from a frontline participant in one of the most iconic events in history.
Collins’ explanations of some of the technical facets of early space exploration are proffered in a manner that is understandable, interesting and non-condescending. He also utilizes a wry sense of humor that evokes the occasional chuckle from a reader.
Memorable examples of his approach occur when he steps across a pseudo-boundary to address a reader directly (like Groucho Marx used to do to moviegoers in Marx Brothers films). On Page 106, Collins endeavors to explain the term “translation” as it applies to movement through space, as he intones: “If you throw this book against the far wall, and I wouldn’t blame you at this stage, you would have caused it to translate laterally or longitudinally…”
The author offers brief profiles of some of his fellow astronauts, but in a classy move, intentionally refrains from commenting about the personalities of astronauts who were already deceased when he wrote this story.
What’s more, Collins was the individual who had to go to the home of Martha and Roger Chaffee to inform the astronaut’s wife her husband had perished in a fire in the spacecraft during a launch practice.
To his credit, the author does not go into details about words that were spoken or the reaction of Chaffee’s widow.
The Apollo 11 CMP also recounts how his own family life was affected by the glare of publicity (as was every other early astronaut family) but unlike most of their peers, Pat and Michael Collins stayed married for 57 years until Pat passed away in 2012. One of the most meaningful passages in the book was actually
written by Pat —it’s a poem entitled “To a Husband Who Must Seek the Stars.”
Collins’ assignment as Apollo 11’s Command Module Pilot (CMP) mandated he would remain in orbit around the moon while the other two crew members journeyed to the surface. Accordingly, there would
always be a “so-close-but-so-far” line of thinking associated with CMPs.
The development of the Apollo 11 mission and the business-like relationship of its three crew members are examined, and Collins’ “amiable strangers” description is on the money.
There was also the solitary voyager notion — for 48 minutes of each lunar orbit, CMPs were out of radio contact with not only their two fellow crew members (who were on the surface) but also NASA
communications emanating from Earth, a quarter-million miles away.
Which means those CMPs were the most isolated human beings in history. However, Collins asserts he never became lonely.
Over the decades, Collins wrote other books but he didn’t update or rewrite “Carrying The Fire” other
than composing new prefaces. The original 1974 text still stands on its own and is still a terrific read.
I hadn’t read Michael Collins’ autobiography in at least 15 years. Revisiting it again simply validated why
it’s a keeper.