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What Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins feared most during critical NASA mission

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which first landed American astronauts on the moon's surface. Of the intrepid crew, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have tended to dominate public attention, but it was pilot Michael Collins who flew the command module to the moon -- and faced his own distinct concerns about the return trip. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fifty years ago this week, the world watched as the Apollo 11 crew lifted off, and then landed on the moon a few days later.

    Much of the attention, and especially during milestone anniversaries, has focused on Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the astronauts who first set foot on the moon, but the work and efforts of their command module pilot and crew member, Michael Collins, was crucial, too.

    As Miles O'Brien tells us, Collins had a perspective and concerns of his own that were distinct to the mission.

    His profile is the focus of tonight's Leading Edge segment.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For a man spun from the rarest of right stuff cloth, Mike Collins is surprisingly humble and self-deprecating.

    How much of what happened to you was luck, do you think?

  • Michael Collins:

    Ooh, luck. I think…

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Or do you believe in luck? That's another question.

  • Michael Collins:

    Ardently, I believe in luck. Luck should be put on my gravestone.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Sure, he and his Apollo 11 compadres, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were all born in the same year, 1930.

  • Michael Collins:

    We just wandered by at exactly the right moment. And that is a consummate example of luck, luck, and more luck. I am a big believer in luck.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But, of course, they really weren't wandering. No, they were marching with a warrior's purpose. After all, luck favors the well-prepared.

    In 1963, he was a test pilot, driven to go faster and higher, when NASA selected him in its third class of astronauts. His first mission? Gemini 10 in 1966. The Gemini missions were primarily focused on perfecting orbital rendezvous and docking, the devilishly complex process of bringing two ships together in space.

    It consumed the time and talent of NASA's engineering brain trust. But what about space-walking?

  • Michael Collins:

    Well, you just kind of go out there. And we really had not thought through just what going out there meant.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And he had two space walks on his to-do list for Gemini 10.

  • Michael Collins:

    One of the consequences of our being ignorant, I have to say, about spacewalking was, I found myself outside, no handholds where I was, slippery surfaces, slipped off, went ass over teakettle out into the unknown, beyond the Gemini.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It wasn't pretty, but he pulled it off.

    The worst part for us, during the gyrations, his camera, unmoored from its tether, sending his priceless selfies into the void. Collins became the astronaut specialist on space suit development. Ironically, there were a few occasions when wearing the suit during a long session in the Apollo command module simulator gave him claustrophobia.

  • Michael Collins:

    I was wedged in below one of the couches, and very limited space. I couldn't really move. I was almost trapped.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Something like that, you probably could never confess to anybody at that time, right?

  • Michael Collins:

    That is correct. I never confessed that to anybody at that time. I was afraid I would be grounded.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's the worst word a pilot can ever hear. Fortunately, he never felt the panic in space. He says he never really felt scared. But he was worried pretty much the whole time.

  • Michael Collins:

    I think of a flight to the moon as being a long and fragile daisy chain of events. Any one of those links breaks, everything downstream from that is useless.

    There are so many things that can go wrong. The machinery is compact, but complex, extremely complex. You can never relax — or at least I could never relax. I could never say, things are going well. That was almost a jinx to say that things were going well.

    I might think that in the back of my mind, but, really, I would be a little on edge and a little bit worried about the next little link in that chain.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climbed into the lunar module and made their way toward their historic landing on the lunar surface…

  • Man:

    Roger. Eagle is undocked.

  • Man:

    Roger. How does it look?

  • Man:

    The Eagle has wings.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    … Collins remained in the Apollo command module, orbiting the moon, not the best seat on this mission, but not something he regretted.

  • Michael Collins:

    I think you have got a fine looking flying machine there, Eagle, despite the fact you're upside down.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Surprisingly, he didn't worry about whether his crewmates would land successfully .

  • Man:

    The Eagle has landed.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But, rather, whether they could depart. The engine to propel them off the lunar surface was a huge exception to NASA's design philosophy of redundant systems.

  • Michael Collins:

    It was a solitary, single, one chamber. That chamber either ignited properly and got you the thrust, or it didn't. If it didn't, Neil and Buzz were dead on the surface.

    So, that was very critical worry point for me.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Did you guys talk about the possibility that you might be the guy coming home alone? Did that ever come up?

  • Michael Collins:

    It wasn't something I wanted to discuss with them.

    "Hey, Neil, suppose you are stranded forever on the surface of the moon. Would you mind terribly if I just sort of headed home?"

    I mean, it wasn't the kind of thing one talked about, but it was a presence. It was there.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    There was no need to have that conversation, was there?

  • Michael Collins:

    Exactly.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Coming home alone, what would that have been like?

  • Michael Collins:

    Well, it would have been terrible. I mean, I don't — I hate to think about it.

  • Man:

    Tranquility Base Houston, you're cleared for takeoff,

  • Man:

    Roger. Understand. We are number one on the runway.

  • Man:

    Beautiful. Very smooth. Very quiet ride.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    On their ride back home, they marveled at our perch in the universe. The moon was their destination, but, for Collins, the real discovery was Earth itself.

  • Michael Collins:

    All right, I have got the world in my window for a change.

    The moon was nothing compared to my view of home planet.

    It was it. It was the main chance. I would look out the window, and there would be a tiny little thing. You know, you could obscure it with your thumb. But every time you put it away somewhere, it would pop out. It wanted you to look at it. It wanted to be seen.

    It was gorgeous. It was tiny, shiny, the blue of the oceans, the white of the clouds, little streak of rust color that we call continents. It just glowed.

    Having gone out 240,000 miles and seeing it gives me a much greater sense of fragility, a much greater urge to do something to protect that fragility as we go along.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    His memoir, "Carrying the Fire," remains the standard by which all books authored by astronauts are judged, right stuff meets right brain.

    He is the poet laureate the Apollo astronauts, and yet one of his regrets from that era involves a lack of poetry at a historic moment.

    In December 1968, he was the astronaut in charge of radio communication with the crew of Apollo 8, the first voyage to orbit the moon.

    It was his job to give mission commander Frank Borman permission to fire the rocket that would give them enough velocity to escape the gravitational pull of Earth. In NASA parlance, it was called trans-lunar injection, or TLI. It was a historic first.

  • Michael Collins:

    So, I thought, when this moment comes in history, this is it, the pope will certainly send a message. The president will come. Sinatra will sing. There will be some acknowledgment of it.

    And in the meantime, of course, it's up to Frank and me. And we're both right up there. We are going to handle this thing properly.

    So, I went first. I said:

    Apollo 8, you are go for TLI. Over.

    And Frank rose to the occasion. And he said:

  • Frank Borman:

    Roger. Understand. We are go for TLI.

  • Michael Collins:

    That was it. That was it. That was the whole thing. That was ridiculous.

  • Michael Collins:

    I mean, what do we have all of this for?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    If you had to do that one over, what would you say?

  • Michael Collins:

    I don't know. I don't know. I have to think that one over.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A few weeks later, I interviewed him again at the World Science Festival in New York City. He was ready.

    Here's your moment for a do-over. What would you say if you could do it again?

  • Michael Collins:

    Uh-oh.

  • Michael Collins:

    Well, I would abide by the NASA rules, which you can't — you can't say more than I think eight words in a row, and, preferably, they will all be monosyllabic.

  • Michael Collins:

    But, under those conditions, I would say: "Apollo 8, the moon is yours. Go."

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Fifty years ago, the moon became ours, thanks to Apollo 11.

    Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were the trio at the tip of a rocket that flew into history, thanks to the concerted effort of more than 300,000 people and the consistent support of American taxpayers.

    When it was done, inhabitants in all corners of our fragile planet saw it as a triumph for not just one country, but for humanity as a whole.

  • Neil Armstrong:

    That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien.

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