Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot, turns 89 this year. Carrying the Fire, his autobiographical story of the lunar mission which he wrote himself, is one of the most celebrated accounts of the epic journey. It had a special reprinting this year for the 50th Anniversary of the moon (lunar) landing.
In a NASA interview on the 40th Anniversary, he was asked what his strongest memory of Apollo 11 was. He replied, “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 façade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment.”
When asked about feeling lonely, as he remained on the command module, while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon, he was dismissive. “Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I felt very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface,” he said. “I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I had 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 had. This venture was 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.”
Collins also flew with Orlando native John Young on the Gemini 10 mission, and after Apollo 11, he became the Director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1971. It is the home of not only his Apollo 11 capsule, but of the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis and Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1. Collins was responsible for the museum’s design, construction and preeminent place as one of the greatest museums in the world. Since its opening in 1976, the museum has welcomed over 350 million visitors.
In 2016, Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and Amazon, sat down for an interview with Collins at the Air and Space Museum, for what was a historic exchange. It can be seen on Nasa’s YouTube channel in the Science and Technology Category, under the title “Spaceflight Then, Now and Next.” The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Spaceflight Then, Now and Next
Which was more challenging, building Amazon into one of the greatest companies in the world or building Blue Origin?
Jeff Bezos (JB): Very different challenges. A little over 20 years ago I was driving packages to the post office in my Chevy Blazer, dreaming one day I would be able to buy a forklift. Today, the entrepreneurial dynamism produced through the internet is just incredible. That is what I want to help facilitate with space.
I want to put the heavy lift of infrastructure in place, so that the next generation can have that same entrepreneurial dynamism and explosion of ideas, that we experienced with the internet. When I started Amazon, UPS and the postal system already existed, I didn’t have to build that. Credit cards and direct payment already was there. Currently there is so much involved in getting into space; that is what I want to change. Today, the price of admission in space is too high.
Why are entrepreneurs, instead of the federal government leading the charge into space?
Michael Collins (MC): Most things are cyclical, and we reached the crest of the wave at the end of the Apollo program. We have had a long hiatus and now that momentum is rebuilding. I have always thought we should have gone right on to Mars. In fact, I was in favor of renaming NASA, NAMA, the National Aeronautics and Mars Administration.
JB: Perhaps technology has had to catch-up. Essentially, what they did with the Apollo program in the 60s should have been impossible, when you think about the technology they had. Perhaps it was almost premature and now we are just getting to where, in the normal course, we would be. The only reason Blue Origin, SpaceX or Virgin Galactic can do what we are doing is because we are standing on the shoulders of NASA. All the formula’s we use, they developed.
If the president asked you, “What can we do to reclaim the momentum we once had in space?” What would you advise?
MC: When John F. Kennedy said we wanted to go to the moon in 10 years, everyone understood exactly what the goal was. We need something similar to that today, a clear well-defined objective, with leadership to back it up.
JB: Perhaps a big prize, like the DARPA Grand Challenge, that kicked off self-driving cars, we could do something similar with space. Perhaps an unmanned mission to Mars to bring back samples of Martian soil. If they don’t succeed it cost taxpayers nothing. Also, I think NASA needs to be focused on gigantic hard technology goals. Like an in space qualified nuclear reactor, which would be essential to any deep space mission or research on point to point supersonic travel on earth.
Do you think there are UFO’s or life on other planets?
MC: The problem is the descriptor; every pilot has seen unidentified flying objects. Do I think they are alien space craft? No. JB: I think there is life elsewhere in the universe. Do I think they have visited us and abducted people? No, I do not. Nor is there a government conspiracy to keep it secret. When or if they come, it won’t be a secret.
How did you become an astronaut?
MC: I didn’t look up into the sky and see the moon and say to myself, “I want to go into space.” I went to West Point, because my father, my uncle and my brother had all gone there, and it was a free education. My father was a general and my uncle was the Army Chief of Staff at the time, so when I graduated, to avoid nepotism, I went into the Air Force. I had a choice to fly or not fly, I chose to fly. Then the choice was to fly big ones or little ones, I chose little ones. Then it was to fly the same ones over and over or to fly the new ones, I wanted to fly the new ones. Next thing I know I’m a test pilot and NASA is looking for test pilots. It was just a stair step. Most people don’t know the process they went through to determine who might make the best astronauts. It was crazy, they thought of mountain climbers and deep-sea scuba divers. Finally, the decided-on certified test pilots, so that narrowed it down to where I got in.
Where did your interest in space begin?
JB: I was inspired as a five-year-old watching the journey of Apollo 11. You don’t choose your passions, your passions chose you and ever since I was five, I have had a passion for space and thought about spacecraft every day of my life.
I always wanted to build a space company. But reality came into play and I became enamored with computers. Then I won this lottery called Amazon.com, and I realized, ‘Hey I can build a space company.’ So, I started Blue Origin, which now employs about 700 people. We are building an orbital vehicle, along with a sub-orbital tourism vehicle, to compete with Virgin Galactic, to make it possible for anyone who wants to, to go into space.
The key is you have to make your vehicles reusable. If you throw them in the ocean after each use it will never be affordable.
Will you one day go into space?
JB: Absolutely I will, I think we can lower cost and increase reliability, through reusability.
How was it decided or was there debate about who would be the first to step on the moon?
MC: Neil, as the mission commander, was the logical choice. Frankly, because of his experience as a test pilot he was far and away the most qualified. Some thought he was too reticent as a public representative, but I thought he was just the kind of individual to represent NASA.
Going to the Moon I compare to a very complex and fragile daisy chain, if one link breaks, it all unravels. Someone asked Neil about the complex challenges of navigating the spacecraft. He, with his characteristic humor responded, ‘No, it wasn’t complex, you could see the Moon the whole way there.”
It was the assent from the moon that produced the most anxiety for me. I had a book with 18 different ‘what if’ scenarios I practiced, because that lunar vehicle only had one shot, there were no back up systems.