Michael Collins kept an orbital vigil during Neil's and Buzz's moonwalk, but he really didn't feel that lonely.
For half a century, Michael Collins has been answering variations of the same question asked by reporters, he says.
"Mr. Collins, weren't you the loneliest man in the whole lonely history of this lonely planet by your lonely self behind the lonely moon in this lonely orbit? Weren't you terribly lonely?" he mused.
Collins is often the forgotten astronaut on Apollo 11, the one who remained in orbit, 96km above the moon in the Apollo command module, waiting for his crewmates, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, to return from the lunar surface.
He did not mind his solitary time aboard the spacecraft, which was named Columbia.
"I had this beautiful little domain," Collins said. "It was all mine. I was the emperor, the captain of it, and it was quite commodious. I had warm coffee, even."
Unlike half a billion people on Earth, Collins did not see the broadcast of Armstrong's first steps on the moon.
There was no television in the command module. Even if there were, he would still not have seen it. Collins was above the far side of the moon at that moment, cut off from all communications, and he missed Armstrong's legendary words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Collins spoke of his life as a Nasa astronaut in the 1960s in a series of interviews, two with New York Times journalists and one with playwright J.T. Rogers as part of research for a play commissioned by The Times. He discussed other questions he has often been asked, too.
Q: What was the mood as you sat on the launchpad awaiting liftoff on July 16, 1969?
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A: "I was thinking of per diem, you know, how many dollars per mile we'd be paid for this voyage," he joked.
More seriously, he said he was carefully completing tasks on his checklist. "I was nervous about getting every syllable of it exactly right," he said. "Because this was going to be the day. This was no fooling around. This was it."
Q: Was he worried as Armstrong and Aldrin undocked and headed for the moon's surface in the lunar module?
A: "I thought it would go well," Collins said. "I thought, Neil is a very competent pilot, and the surface as we knew it presented some obstacles but it also presented a lot of nice flat landing zones."
The landing turned out to be more nerve-wracking than anticipated when the landing area, thought to be a smooth plain, was strewn with boulders. Armstrong searched for a clear spot and finally landed with less than 30 seconds of fuel left.
Collins was more worried about their return.
If something went wrong with the lunar module's ascent engine, Armstrong and Aldrin might be stuck on the lunar surface or in a crazy orbit; Collins would try to manoeuvre to retrieve them.
Collins said that around his neck he had a packet outlining 18 contingency plans.
"What happens if they veer this way, that way, the other way?" he said. "Some of them were so outlandish, we never really practised them."
Q: What would he have done if he were unable to bring Armstrong and Aldrin home?
A: "I was not going to commit suicide. I was coming home by myself. And they knew that," he said. "I didn't have to discuss it with them, and they didn't have to discuss it with me. But it would not have been a good trip home."
Q: What did he say to Armstrong and Aldrin when they successfully returned to the command module?
A: Collins recalled that he was not entirely happy to see them.
"They were dirty," he said. "You know, from their knees down, their nice white suits had all this grimy goo on them from the rocks and dust on the moon. And I thought, Oh, I'm going to bring that into the command module; I have to clean everything up."
But Collins says he does not remember what he said as they entered: "I don't know. I've been asked that question so many times that if I ever knew the answer, I've lost it."
Three days later, the Apollo 11 capsule splashed down in the Pacific.
"I was just amazed that all those mechanical little bits and pieces worked exactly as advertised," he said, "and we were able to carry off what John F. Kennedy had told us to do without a hitch."
Collins is 88 years old now. He was 38 when he kept his vigil during the moon landing. All three Apollo 11 astronauts were born in 1930.
"We came along at exactly the right time," Collins wrote in the 2009 preface to Carrying the Fire, his meticulous accounting of Apollo 11 first published in 1974. "Just lucky, the right place at the right time."
Like most of Nasa's early astronauts, he had been a test pilot for the Air Force. When he applied to Nasa in 1962, he was rejected. He applied again a year later and was accepted.
Astronaut training included trips to the Grand Canyon to learn the basics of geology and survival training in the jungle in case the landing ended far off course.
"When I signed up to be an astronaut, I really did not know and had not asked what some of the training venues might be," Collins said. "You know if someone told me I'd be eating iguana lizards in the Panamanian jungle, I would have said, 'Was that really necessary?'"
His first spaceflight was Gemini 10, one of the Apollo precursor missions during which Nasa figured out the details of orbital manoeuvres like docking.
That he ended up on Apollo 11 was the serendipity of back surgery.
Collins was originally assigned to be command module pilot of Apollo 8, which became the first mission to orbit (but not land on) the moon. But he started having trouble walking, caused by disk herniation in his spine. James Lovell replaced Collins on Apollo 8.
The surgery was successful, and Collins was reassigned to Apollo 11.
He could have had a third spaceflight as commander of Apollo 17. But even before Apollo 11 launched, he decided he wanted to leave the program because life as an astronaut took him away from his family. He told Deke Slayton of the astronaut office, who had been one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, "If everything goes exactly as planned, I'm out of here."
After Collins left Nasa in 1970, he served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs and then director of the National Air and Space Museum, overseeing the construction of the current building on the National Mall in Washington.
Today, Collins still remembers the view of the moon as they closed in.
"It filled up a whole window, and it was absolutely three-dimensional," he said. "The lights a lot lighter, the darks a lot darker, the delineation of them so clear. The sunlight was behind, and the sunlight was cascading 360 degrees around the rim of the moon. It made the most glorious spectacle you've ever seen in your life."
But it is the view of Earth from 230,000 miles away, blue and white with a smudge of tan, that made more of a mark on him. "The thing that really surprised me was that it projected an air of fragility," he said. "And why, I don't know. I don't know to this day. I had a feeling it's tiny, it's shiny, it's beautiful, it's home, and it's fragile."
Written by: Kenneth Chang
Photographs by: Krista Schlueter
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