Apollo 11’s Michael Collins on the Earth and the Moon 50 Years Later

As he rocketed toward the moon in his epic flight 50 years ago, astronaut Michael Collins recalled that what beguiled him the most was not the pale lunar surface getting nearer. He had seen that all his life.

What captivated him, he told moderator Marvin Kalb Monday evening, April 15, was “looking back over my shoulder at planet Earth.” Though he had spent his whole life on it, seeing it afresh, glittering in the sunlight with the brilliant blue seas, the white clouds and the green and brown land masses gave him a new appreciation for home.

“I don’t know why, but I felt that I was looking at something fragile,” he said. “Earth is something we all enjoy without thinking about it. I felt like I was seeing something for the first time. We can now look at Earth in a much more benign way.”

Collins, along with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were positioned for the moon landing on July 20, 1969. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon in the Lunar Module Eagle, Collins remained in the command module, orbiting the moon and hoping that all would go right to get his colleagues safely back.

Collins, 88, was sprightly, funny and engaging as he answered Kalb’s questions about what it was like on that first moon landing mission and where he thought human space travel should go in the future.

And he even had a few choice words for anyone who would call the news media “the enemy of the people.”

“The enemy, my ass,” he said. “The press is not our enemy. It is our salvation, and I thank you for it.”

Collins said he was intrigued by space travel since he read Buck Rodgers in the comics as a boy.  And he remains an advocate for a human Mars expedition, although he conceded preparing for it could take us to 2040.

“Exploration is a large part of who we are,” he said. “I don’t want to live with a lid over my head. It’s something within us. People in general want to go and touch and see.”

Yes, there was peril in the moon mission, he said. Chances of a successful mission at times were placed at 50-50. But it was never terrifying. There was just a long “daisy chain” of events, each one coming up and each one had to go right. If one failed, it would affect everything coming next. Redundancies were built into most everything. But the Eagle itself only had only one engine. If it failed, Armstrong and Aldrin were not coming back.

As he circled around the dark side of the moon, he was cut off from the rest of humanity, Collins said. But, he added, that was nowhere near as difficult as what Charles Lindbergh had experienced in his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Lindbergh had to endure 33 hours alone with no contact. And if he fell asleep, he would crash and die.

In contrast, Collins said he had so much contact with Mission Control while circling the moon that sometimes being on the dark side was a relief from the constant chatter.

The lesson of the moon mission is the same today as it was 50 years ago, he said.  As he circled the moon, Collins kept getting “earth shots” through the window of the beautiful, benign planet.  He could see no borders.  And when he, Armstrong and Aldrin toured around the world on goodwill missions, Collins said, people would talk to them about “our achievement,” not America’s achievement.  Humans had reached the moon. They all reveled in it.

“If you want to do anything about this fragile object,” he said, “you have to change your thinking.”

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This program completed the 25th season of The Kalb Report, a joint project of the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland University College, the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, the Gaylord College of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and Maryland Public Television serves as presenting station for national distribution.