Jacqueline’s Space: a tribute to astronaut michael collins and his lasting legacy

Astronauts have a strange way of impacting our world by leaving it.

An image taken on July 21, 1969 shows nearly all humanity has ever experienced – the blue and white, half-illuminated Earth, its desolate and cratered moon and the silver and black Lunar Module Eagle containing the men who just stepped foot on the moon’s surface. In the corner of the image, the black blur of the command module Columbia’s windowpane is the only sign that a part of humanity is missing from the photo.

That missing part was Michael Collins, the command module pilot of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. When he snapped that photo, he was flying nearly 70 miles above the lunar surface and traveling 3,600 miles per hour, awaiting the return of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from their historic landing. At the age of 90, after battling cancer, Collins died April 28. 

Collins joined NASA in 1963 as one of 14 in the third group of astronauts. Before retiring in 1970, Collins completed two space flights, Gemini 10 and Apollo 11, accumulating over 11 days in space and two spacewalks. At NASA, he had a front row seat of the space race.

However, while millions watched Armstrong step out onto the moon, Collins never heard Armstrong utter, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Onboard Columbia, for 48 minutes of every two-hour lunar orbit, Collins flew to the backside of the moon and was disconnected from mission control, his comrades on the moon and all of humanity. Armstrong and Aldrin were setting up the flag on the lunar surface by the time Collins rounded back into the range of communication with earth.

“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” Collins wrote in his autobiography. “I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what is on this side. I feel this powerfully – not as fear or loneliness – but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars – and that is all.”

Collins, branded as the “forgotten astronaut,” did not step foot on the moon in this historic climax to the tumultuous decade nor lived as a household name like Armstrong or Aldrin. But through his window and in those hours of solitude, he gained a perspective that, since the splashdown of Columbia in the Pacific Ocean, changed the world. The rest of his life, through his writing and work as the director of the National Air and Space Museum, he spent inciting young people to see the importance of space exploration.

First, space exploration turns us inwards. Collins saw the entirety of human existence in a pea-sized, blue and white globe hanging in the vastness of space, and he had one word to describe it – fragile. 

“As we walk its surface, it seems solid and substantial enough, almost infinite as it extends flatly in all directions,” Collins wrote. “But from space there is no hint of ruggedness to it; smooth as a billiard ball, it seems delicately poised in its circular journey around the sun, and above all it seems fragile.”

If Hale could interview anyone in the world, it would be astronaut Michael Collins.

Such a view can bring a fear of meaninglessness, but by the end of his eight-day mission in space, that fragile globe is what Collins desired to return to. This perspective of the world at a distance brings beautiful self-recognition and appreciation for our tiny blue dot. 

But Collins’ experience also turns our view outwards. Those 28 hours of isolation orbiting the moon were not only necessary for the success of this pivotal mission, but also as a symbol of the edge between the known and the unknown – the last frontier. From our perspective on the busy and bustling Earth, we perceive such isolation as lonely, but each of those stars contain whole other worlds. Beneath him was the present, Armstrong taking the first steps on another planetary body, but around him was the infinite future of space exploration. 

Collins’ legacy is a quiet one, but one that will continue to impact the world every time we take another step, toward Mars and beyond. He also left a legacy on my life.

A few weeks ago, Liberty University’s Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and Alliances Glenn Clary asked me this question: if I could interview anyone in the world, who would it be? Without hesitation, I answered “Michael Collins”. Through his autobiography “Carrying the Fire,” Collins introduced me to another world and sparked my passion for space. He opened my mind to the unknowns of the entire universe and gave me a new perspective on our home planet. 

With his passing, my interview dreams will never come true, but I decided that the next best thing would be to write about his contribution to the fragile world he saw in his window. 

Next semester, my column will orbit around a different topic in space exploration every week. Hopefully, it will ignite in someone the same passion Collins did in me and many others throughout his life.

Jacqueline Hale is the Editor-in-Chief. Follow her on Twitter at @HaleJacquelineR.

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