Archive for the ‘Michael Collins’ Category

Mission to Mars, Michael Collins

February 26, 2010

Mars has always occupied a special place in the imaginations of those interested in space exploration. It is not Earth’s nearest interplanetary neighbour – not counting the Moon, that would be Venus – but it is the planet humanity could most easily colonise. At one time, it was thought to be inhabited, and science fiction has populated the Red Planet with a variety of races since the beginnings of the genre.

A mission to Mars, however, would be an immensely difficult task. There’s the distance, of course – requiring a journey time of between six and eleven months, depending on the type of trajectory chosen: direct, Hohmann or Venus slingshot. Then there’s the fact that humans can’t survive unaided on the Martian surface – it’s too cold, there’s not enough oxygen, and there’s no protection from UV or solar radiation. But these are difficulties which technology and science can overcome.

Michael CollinsMission to Mars is a straightforward discussion of the practicalities, difficulties and possibilities of sending a crewed mission to the Red Planet. In twenty-five chapters, the book covers everything from crew-members practicing how to live on Mars by wintering in Antarctica through to the political reasons for embarking on the mission.

After Apollo reached the Moon, Mars was perhaps the next logical step. Not all of the technology existed to make a Martian mission a reality – as Collins points out in Mission to Mars. He is especially worried about the lack of knowledge in Controlled Ecological Life-Support Systems, or closed-loop life-support systems, which he sees as a vital technology for the trip. Other areas Collins discusses have been researched in the two decades since the book’s publication – long duration stays in zero-gravity, for example. And geopolitics has changed since 1990, too. The USSR no longer exists, and the Cold War is a thing of the past.

There are other areas in which Mission to Mars shows it age. Collins assumes that NASA next big project will be Space Station Freedom. Which never happened. True, we have the International Space Station – but it wasn’t built to the same timetable as Space Station Freedom would have been.

These are forgivable – Collins could not see the future, after all. Mission to Mars covers the basics of sending people to Mars, albeit not in especially great detail. The final chapters recount a fictional mission with an international crew, which launches in 2004. Collins admits that the date is too early, but not because it would be technologically impossible. The mission itself he designs according to what he calls the “Law of Least Astonishment”, which means that some aspects of it seem curiously clunky and old-fashioned – the use of computers, especially.

Collins is particularly adamant that revisiting the Moon would be a waste of time. He still feels the same. Last year at a lecture at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, alongside Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn, he called on President Obama to commit to a colony on Mars, but added that the Moon would distract the nation from reaching Mars. Perhaps Project Constellation might have eventually sent astronauts to the Red Planet. We’ll never know. It’s unlikely Obama’s “Flexible Path” will lead to anybody leaving Low Earth Orbit in the foreseeable future – despite mention of sending astronauts to visit asteroids.

As an introduction to visiting and colonising Mars, Mission to Mars is readable and informative. Sadly, the book does show its age. While Collins’ position – as an ex-astronaut involved with space policy – makes it probably one of the better books on the subject, history and technological progress have overtaken it. But if you’re interested in how a mission to the Red Planet might be achieved, Mission to Mars is a good start.

Mission to Mars, Michael Collins (1990, Grove Weidenfeld, ISBN 0-8021-1160-2, 292pp + index)

First on the Moon, Armstrong, Aldrin & Collins

July 20, 2009

Forty years ago, the first person from this planet set foot on Earth’s satellite, the Moon. He was Neil Alden Armstrong, and with Buzz Aldrin he formed the crew of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle (Michael Collins remained in orbit about the Moon aboard Command Module Columbia). They were followed by a further six missions, one of which – Apollo 13 – did not make it to the lunar surface. On 14th December 1972, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt climbed back into the Apollo 17 LM Challenger and shortly afterwards it departed. No one has visited the Moon since.

First on the Moon by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins is the definitive account of the first mission to land on the Moon. It was published immediately after the event, and was written with the assistance of Gene Farmer and Dora Jane ‘Dodie’ Hamblin, two of the Life journalists who had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families.

You would expect the most authoritative book on the Apollo 11 lunar landing to be one written by the three men who actually made the trip. But would that necessarily make it a good book? Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are, after all, astronauts and not writers – Farmer and Hamblin’s presence on the title page notwithstanding. So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that First on the Moon is very good indeed. Not only because it tells the story of the mission with authority, but because it is readable, well-structured, and a fascinating read from start to finish.

The book is written in several voices – there are transcripts of the mission, some parts of which are annotated; there are passages by the three astronauts, typically in answer to questions; there are sections describing events at the homes of the astronauts as their families watch the mission on television; and there are passages more typical of a non-fiction record of Apollo 11, not all of which feature the Apollo 11 crew or their families. Together these build a mosaic, rich in detail, of what happened during the flight, for both those aboard and those who remained behind.

Having now read First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong (see here), Buzz Aldrin’s Return to Earth (see here), and Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire (see here), I feel I have some idea of the character of the three astronauts – and First on the Moon does nothing to dispel the impression of them as people I had gained from those three books. Armstrong still talks like a flight manual, Aldrin is as blunt as he is in his autobiography, and Collins provides the light relief and culture. Those three books, however, do not cover Apollo 11 – surely the defining moment of their lives – in as much detail as First on the Moon.

First on the Moon also scores highly in another area. Since Farmer and Hamblin were embedded with the Apollo families, they witnessed the reactions of the wives and children to the mission. The families are certainly not ignored in First on the Moon, and they are quoted almost as extensively as the astronauts themselves. It makes for a rounded view of Apollo 11 – the three astronauts in space in their CSM, while their spouses and children watched and waited at home.

The book finishes with an excellent epilogue by Arthur C Clarke, entitled ‘Beyond Apollo’. It’s typical Clarkeian futurism, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see that his optimism in many areas was unfounded. After Apollo 17, no one ever left Earth orbit again – so there are no moonbases, there have been no missions to Mars. Which is a shame: I think I would have liked the late twentieth century Clarke depicts. Those familiar with Clarke’s novels and stories may spot references to his fiction in some of the points he makes.

Of course, since First on the Moon was written by the Apollo 11 crew, with the help of Life journalists, it’s not going to be “warts and all”. It puts a positive spin on the whole endeavour, and no one comes out of it looking bad. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, Apollo 11 should be celebrated. When talking to Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins aboard USS Hornet after their return, President Nixon said, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation”. Hyperbole aside, putting two men on the Moon was an astonishing achievement; and even more astonishing when you consider the time at which it happened, the 1960s. Most of the technology required was in its infancy then. Now, we have the science, technology and engineering to repeat the achievement, and it would not be nearly so difficult.

Even if some nation does put an astronaut on the Moon in the next twenty years, and several have declared an intent to do so, it will never be as impressive an accomplishment as Apollo 11.

There are many books available on Apollo 11 – and yet more being published this year to celebrate the its fortieth anniversary. First on the Moon not only has the advantage of being written by the crew of Apollo 11, but also having been written shortly afterward. It’s an excellent study of the mission. Highly recommended.

First on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, with Gene Farmer and Dora Jane Hamblin (1970, Little, Brown, No ISBN , 433pp + epilogue, acknowledgment and notes)

Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins

July 17, 2009

I’ve read enough about Apollo 11 – and not just in my preparations for this Apollo40 celebration – to be aware of how its crew are normally characterised. Neil Armstrong is the strong, silent type, and has shunned all publicity since the Apollo 11 round-the-world tour. Buzz Aldrin is a fierce proponent of space exploration, extremely clever, but also very frank and blunt. And Michael Collins is the erudite one, the wine connoisseur, who was not as po-faced or serious as Armstrong or Aldrin.

These, of course, are the public perceptions of the three astronauts. And the best way to a better understanding of them is to read their biographies or autobiographies. Beginning with Michael Collins, whose Carrying the Fire is generally reckoned to be one of the best books of its type.

I’ve been disappointed by highly-recommended books on space before – see here – but happily I can confirm that both Michael Collins and his Carrying the Fire live up to their reputations. He is an engaging and readable narrator, surprisingly honest, and considerably more self-effacing than the other astronauts. (This last may also have been true of Pete Conrad, but his biography, Rocketman, was written after his death and doesn’t really give a true indication of the man – see here.)

Like Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins owes his place in the history books to misfortune – in this case, his own. He had been initially assigned to the crew of Apollo 8, but a cervical disc herniation requiring surgery resulted in him being dropped from flight status. After he had recovered, he was assigned to Apollo 11. If it had not been for his back problem, it’s likely Apollo 8 would have been his one and only Apollo flight – he was keen to retire from NASA after successful completion.

Which is a shame. Collins was command module pilot for Apollo 11, and remained in orbit about the Moon in Command Module Columbia. Of all the Apollo astronauts, Collins would probably have best described in prose what it was like to actually walk on the Moon. If he had not left NASA after Apollo 11, the normal rotation schedule would probably have seen him commanding Apollo 17… and so landing on the lunar surface. And then he would have been able to write about it.

For instance, take Collins’ description of his first sight of the Moon from close quarters:

“The moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional, small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen. To begin with, it is huge, completely filling our window. Second, it is three-dimensional. The belly of it bulges out towards us in such a pronounced fashion that I almost feel I can reach out and touch it, while its surface obviously recedes towards the edges. It is between us and the sun, creating the most splendid lighting conditions imaginable.” (p 387)

It is definitely the writing which lifts Carrying the Fire above other books of its type. In its approach to its topic, it is little different. It opens with a very brief prĂ©cis of Collins’ early life, mentioning – of course – his first aeroplane ride. It covers his entry into the US Air Force and his career before joining NASA. He then discusses the other astronauts, and takes time to briefly characterise them. Of his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts, he says:

Neil Armstrong Makes decisions slowly and well. As Borman gulps decisions, Armstrong savors them – rolling them around on his tongue like a fine wine and swallowing at the very last moment … Neil is a classy guy, and I can’t offhand think of a better choice to be the first man on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin Heavy, man, heavy. Would make a champion chess player; always thinks several moves ahead. If you don’t understand what Buzz is talking about today, you will tomorrow or the next day. Fame has not worn well on Buzz. I think he resents not being first on the moon more than he appreciates being second.” (p 60)

To be fair, Carrying the Fire was published in 1974, at which point Aldrin was indeed failing to cope… but Aldrin did subsequently go on to “wear fame” the best of the three, and today is a tireless and vocal proponent of space exploration. And, of course, Aldrin’s own words on the second man on the Moon “controversy” are entirely different in his own book, Return to Earth (see this blog tomorrow). Later in Carrying the Fire, during the mission itself, slightly different characters emerge for the two; and Collins’ analysis on the trip back to Earth results in him referring to them as “amiable strangers” – an often-quoted phrase.

Collins provides a great deal of detail about his time in NASA. As all the astronauts were encouraged to specialise in an area related to the various missions, Collins chose space suits and Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA). He spent a lot of time testing the space suits for both the Gemini and Apollo programmes, and describes extremely well the experience of wearing them. In fact, Collins provides an impressive amount of detail about everything he did as an astronaut – most especially, of course, his two missions, Gemini 10 and and Apollo 11. His is the most descriptive and evocative accounts of missions from either programme I have read to date. And they are not only highly informative but a pleasure to read.

Also noteworthy is Collins’ ability to explain the arcana of astronautics in an easy-to-understand fashion. Carrying the Fire by no means talks down to its reader, but neither is it as dense with “technobabble” as, for instance, Tom Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture (see here). Collins writes, “NASA-ese is no worse than Air Force-ese or State Department-ese, I suppose each has its place, although none of them seems a desirable substitute for English” (p 76), and goes on to give examples of each. Carrying the Fire is, happily, written entirely in English.

Collins is also a nicely self-deprecating writer, not only unafraid to include his emotional responses in his account but also to comment on his own abilities and position (or lack thereof) in the Astronaut Corps. He is not always complementary about his colleagues, although he clearly likes and admires them. Neither does he agree that every decision made regarding Gemini and Apollo by NASA was the right one, or that the technology used was always ideal or best-suited to the job.

Above all, Carrying the Fire is an involving read. On finishing it, you’re left with an excellent impression of what it was like to have been on the Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 missions, rather being left with a knowledge of the life and career of Michael Collins, astronaut. Compared to other astronaut autobiographies I have read, this is unusual. I would also say it was a good thing. Interestingly, this is also one of the few autobiographies which was not ghost-written, or written with the assistance of a ghost writer. As Collins himself says, “No matter how good the ghost, I am convinced that a book loses realism when an interpreter stands between the storyteller and his audience” (p xvi).

Highly recommended. If you want to read one autobiography by an astronaut, I can confirm that this is definitely one of the best.

(Note: unlike the other books I have written about on this blog, my edition of Carrying the Fire is not a first edition. The book was first published in 1974.)

Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (2001, Cooper Square Press, ISBN 978-0-8154-1028-7, 478 pp + appendix)


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