High Desert Hangar Stories: The Lonely Rocket Man

Michael Collins in his spacecraft. (NASA photograph)

Back in the 1970s, Elton John sang a haunting song about a lonely astronaut in a fictional space fantasy, speeding through the universe, surrounded by the science and silence of his lonely journey.

Nobody in the real sense of that song and its words could have ever come closer to that reality than Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins.

Michael Collins carried a heavy burden on the Apollo 11 mission and people don’t often give him the credit that he so deserves for the success of that Moon landing. As Collins stated in an interview once, the entire mission relied on a bunch of daisy chain events to go off without a hitch, for there to be a successful outcome. Believe it or not, the crew of Apollo 11 felt they had about a 50-50 chance of making it to the Moon and back. Collins was the pilot of the command module Columbia and responsible for the precision maneuvers required to dock with the lunar module Eagle, which was no easy task. But the real drama for him was the point when that hard dock finally had to be released, and Neil and Buzz floated away to their destiny on the lunar surface below. That destiny is what will define Michael Collins’ life for as long as he lives.

NASA first day cover for the moon landing (Courtesy photograph)

Michael had trained for all possible situations on the mission. The scenario he dreaded most was the one that would have him returning to earth alone, leaving his two fellow astronauts marooned on that lifeless celestial body, or in a low-orbit trajectory that was not high enough for a re-docking of the two craft. As Neil and Buzz began their descent to the surface of the Moon, Michael started on a journey that would parallel that of another individual who faced the unknown alone, with no contact with fellow human beings. As Michael circled to the back side of the Moon, only early aviator and legendary pilot Charles Lindberg knew what he faced, as Michael became the loneliest single human being to be this far from humanity with no contact in the emptiness of space.

If that wasn’t enough, for the next 22 hours Michael flew the command module under the pressure of wondering if he would ever see Neil and Buzz again, and if that lonely trip home that he’d trained for would become a reality. Imagine the talk in that tunnel as the hatch was closed after handshakes and good wishes, and being the one left alone so far from home. Yes, Neil and Buzz were very brave explorers but Michael was also a very brave explorer, with a much different task to perform and a very different form of pressure.

On the back side of the Moon, in a crew compartment not much bigger than a mid-size car interior and the vastness of the universe outside his windows, he went about his tasks in conditions that would have the majority of us fearing the onset of claustrophobia and paranoia. But true to his incredible character and dedication, he kept on task so he could be there to give his shipmates the ride home they were so hoping for, sparing him the unpleasant task of piloting home a very bleak spacecraft and a reception from a nation in mourning.

Astronaut Michael Collins with a lot on his mind. (NASA photograph)

Columbia swept behind the Moon and Collins became Earth’s most distant solo traveler, separated from the rest of humanity by 250,000 miles of space and by the bulk of the Moon, which blocked all radio transmissions to and from Mission Control. He was out of sight and out of contact with his home planet.

“I am now truly alone and absolutely alone from any known life. I am it.” — he wrote in his capsule.

As the hours unfolded, there were a couple of incidents that did have the possibility of bringing an end to the mission but in the end, the “daisy chain” of events that Michael spoke of became a reality. The moment came when two very tired space explorers reunited with a very relieved spacecraft pilot and started the journey home, to a world that would now wake up to the reality of living in a time where mankind had walked on a faraway heavenly body.

Richard Nixon, then U.S. president, had prepared a speech that he would deliver in the event of the Eagle’s engine failing.

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace,” it ran. “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.” If the Apollo 11 mission had been a failure, some say the entire program may have been shelved and Michael Collins would have been the face of the mission for all time — an unwanted legacy, for sure. But on the flipside, with the mission’s success Collins became the missing astronaut, as his two famous crewmates became the face of the mission that we celebrate this month. When people are asked about famous space explorers, of course Neil and Buzz are usually listed as one and two, but Michael is somewhere outside the top ten on most lists. Asked about this, Michael, being the very humble man he is, says that really doesn’t bother him. When asked about those lonely hours around the Moon he just replies, “Looking back now, deep down inside I was a very happy man.”   

Astronaut Michael Collins, with his daughters Ann and Kate in front of his famous spacecraft at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photograph)

Michael Collins, space explorer, had many hours training and serving here in our Antelope Valley at Edwards, and also as an Air Force pilot at George AFB in Victorville. He is one of the very few Apollo astronauts who are still around to share this amazing history on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. We honor Neil, Buzz and Michael for bringing a special pride to our home here in America and hope and pray that someday our missions to far off planets will once again inspire future generations to reach for the stars.   

By the way, after the mission and a passage of time, an envelope arrived at Michaels’s home. Inside was a penned letter from none other than Charles Lindberg that noted the unique aspect of isolation the two men shared, which I referred to in this story.

“Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone” was the chorus line from the Elton John song, and forever more I will always think of Michael Collins doing just that.
Until next time, Bob out! And thank God for our brave astronauts who inspire us every day.

A personal message left for future generations from a very thankful man in the spacecraft he piloted into history. (NASA Photograph)