Tag Archives: nasa

The unsung hero of Apollo 11 – Michael Collins

We all know that Neil Armstrong was the first person to step on the moon. We also know he was followed by Buzz Aldrin. Most people however will fail to name the third astronaut. Some may even forget there was a third person onboard. Command Module Pilot Michael Collins is the forgotten Apollo 11 astronaut. He had the more nerve wracking task of them three. No he didn’t walk on the moon, but he knew that it was possible that he had to leave his fellow astronauts behind on the moon. 

Michael Collins on flight in Apollo 11. Picture NASA.

Before Apollo 11

Michael Collins already had been in space before taking off in Apollo 11. Three years prior to that famous take off, on July 18, 1966, he and John Young took off with Gemini 10. Gemini had to rendevouz with two Agena Target Vehicles and Collins had to perform two EVA’s (spacewalks), the second one on his own. He became the first person to do two spacewalks during one mission. He also became the first person to visit another space vehicle in orbit. These are quite some accomplishments, all prior to the Apollo program. 

Collins was training already for Apollo 9 but started to notice that his legs weren’t working as they should be and that his knees started to give away. He went to see the doctor, even though he didn’t want to because he knew what this meant. And indeed, he had to undergo surgery for cervical disc herniation and had to wear a neck brace for three months. He was removed from the Apollo 9 crew but as he had trained well, he was made capsule communicator for Apollo 8. There he directly communicated with the Apollo 8 crew during their historic flight which brought us the famous earth rise picture. The recovery went well and he was assigned to Apollo 11, the mission that would, if the previous didn’t fail, land on the moon. 

Training

Michael Collins wasn’t to land on the moon. He often trained separated and differently from Aldrin and Armstrong. It must have been tough to prepare mostly alone. That said, his fellow astronauts may have trained together and relied on each other blindly, they never became close in a more friendship kind of way. Strange for two people who would share this once in a lifetime moment together, travelling in quite the small spaceship. Collins also wrote about 18 different rendezvous possibilities, also those that failed. That book ran a 117 pages. He also designed the mission patch. 

His main training was of course operating the Columbia module. He had to make sure the module would remain in orbit around the moon, run system checks, perform moon observations and stay in contact with mission control. But he also had to make sure that Armstrong and Aldrin not just landed safely, but he had the task of taking them back home as well. And if anything should go wrong, he was instructed not to be the hero but return home. Alone. 

The risks

We all know how the mission ended. Armstrong and Aldrin landed safely on the moon, spent 21 hours on the surface and made it back to the command module Columbia and went home safely. We know that, but they weren’t so sure. The lunar module had been tested over and over again and the astronauts had trained numerous times. But they were never able to do it on the moon or similar circumstances. No one knew exactly what these circumstances would be exactly because no one had ever been there. 

If the thrusters weren’t working properly, Armstrong and Aldrin could have ended up in lower orbit around the moon for all eternity without Collins being able to do anything to get them on board. Or they would crash back on the surface. Another possibility was that the Eagle would miss it’s target and shoot into space to Pete knows where. Either of those scenarios, the two astronauts would survive until the oxygen ran out, unless other malfunctions occurred or madness had driven them to other drastic measures. There was a 50/50 chance, the three astronauts calculated among each other, that only Collins would make it home. A terrible thought to carry around. 

Feeling lonely

It weighed heavy on Collins’ mind but he performed his duties with great professionalism. But he admits that releasing the Eagle to the lunar surface was a nerve wracking experience. He told the other two to remain in constant contact with them in fear of losing them. The communication was broken 30 times while Collins was on the far side of the moon. Contact to ground control was also broken during that time. 3 billion people on the other side of the moon, and who knows what on Collins’ side. These were the hardest time for Collins, he was indeed the loneliest man in the world, a figure of speech. Anything could happen during that period, and he just wouldn’t know about it. 

The moment Armstrong and Aldrin left the Lunar surface were the hardest. This was it. This was the moment that would determine whether Collins would fly home alone or as a team. He wasn’t the only one aware of this. President Nixon had a speech ready in case the two moon walkers wouldn’t return home. “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 starts. It’s a beautiful and respectful speech which luckily never had to be used. 

Forgotten astronaut

No one was more relieved than Collins. He said that he would have fulfilled his duty and would have returned home, rather than taking other drastic measures, which wouldn’t have been a strange thing to do under these circumstances. He would have been known as the astronaut that survived the fateful Apollo 11 mission, the survivor of men’s first exploration of an alien world. Now he is the forgotten astronaut. I think it’s safe to say that Michael Collins wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. 

A new Space Race is what space exploration needs

NASA. Mighty, mighty NASA. The winner of the Space Race. Or rather, America claims that title as the US government instructed NASA to put a man on the moon first. They already lost putting a human being in orbit first to Russia. This was important. So, 50 years ago the entire world held its breath and watched a man called Neil and a man called Buzz make the first steps on the moon. America is the only country that put people on the moon. NASA has been the leading space administration for years. But since the retirement of the Space Shuttle it became clear to Houston and the rest of the world that NASA has a problem. And this problem might be solved with another space race.

NASA’s budget

This is not NASA’s fault. Since putting men on the moon, the funding has plumped and right now the budget is barely 0,4% of America’s entire budget. Compare it to the Department of Defense if you want, which gets 13%. But then know that every dollar spend on NASA makes ten. I’d say that’s a good investment. But I’m a writer, not an economic. NASA relied on Roscosmos for years to send Americans to space.

This month Space X will test its crewed dragon module and take it to the ISS, albeit without people. Boeing is also working and quite far in bringing humans (Americans) to space. These private companies weren’t restricted by government funding. Even though NASA will continue to work with Roscosmos, it’s a good thing for the Americans to not just be dependent on Russia.

Working with ESA

NASA has a long history of working together with ESA as well. The European Space Agency was founded in May 1975. They don’t have a program to bring people into space themselves and currently rely on Roscosmos as well. Previously NASA has brought Europeans into space. Most notably from a Dutch perspective they launched Wubbo Ockels into space with the Space Shuttle in 1985. But ESA isn’t just working on sending astronauts to space, nor does NASA for that matter. In the case to explore space, they have done amazing things already. Both agencies will continue to do so and work together as well.

ESA has access to technical NASA files which potentially saves ESA a lot of time and money while developing a new satellite or rover. But NASA doesn’t share all their secrets. And nor does ESA. There’s still competition between the agencies which keeps everyone on their toes. It also brings new ideas and progress. And sometimes tension when NASA (rightly) proudly announces they discovered and explored a first contact binary, while ESA (rightly) clears its throat and points out that they landed on such an object a few years ago already. It’s a space race in its own way.

China’s space explorations

Despite the cooperation between the space agencies, you might say the Space Race is still on. This is a good thing. Just look at how far the Space Race between America and Russia has brought humanity. To the moon indeed. But it’s not just America, Europe and Russia that are at play. China has already a few rovers on the moon but started 2019 by putting Chang’E-4 on the Far Side of the Moon. No agency has ever done this and this is a major mile stone for space exploration and for CNSA in particular. The Chinese National Space Administration isn’t new in space. The general public may not know too much about them, though the landing of Chang’E-4 on the moon may have changed that.

China is actually only the third country that put a probe on the moon which is remarkable if you think about it. It looks like that after the Apollo program proved successful, the interest in the moon declined. The focus was put on experiments in space that benefits life on Earth and also exploring the rest of the universe with ultimately colonizing the universe. It seems after extensive exploration of Mars, the interest in the moon returned.

Interest in the moon

The moon could very well be used as our gateway to space. America has proposed to put people back on the Moon and to build a station there. The question is, will they be the first? China is on a rise. They have skilled taikonauts with space experience. Yang Liwei was the first Chinese person in space, he also became the first none American / Russian to orbit the Earth solo. And did so in an Chinese rocket, the Shenzhou 5.

China’s neighbour isn’t unfamiliar in space either. JAXA was only formed in 2003 (by merging three independent space industries), but the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency has already done amazing things. It is an expert in asteroid exploration and has currently reached Ryugu. Not only will they explore the asteroid but they will take pieces of the object back to earth. That hasn’t been done with an orbiter ever before. Japan is also fond of the moon and after having launched an orbiter successfully, they have planned to launch a rover to the surface of the moon and has joined America and China in the pursuit of putting people on the moon again. JAXA has also collaborated with ESA and has BepiColombo currently on its way to under-explored Mercury.

Other space agencies in the race

Last year we welcomed Australia in the world of space exploration by opening their own space program called the Australian Space Agency. I haven’t seen anyone use ASA, not even in the agency’s logo. This is probably is a good thing. As they only exist for half a year I can’t really list what they have done just yet but they are extremely ambitious and a welcome, more than welcome, addition to the space family. One rightfully may ask themselves why there hasn’t been a space agency in Australia prior to July 2018. Even Canada, the CSA ASC, has one. Notorious for going viral with their astronaut Chris Hadfield play Space Oddity in space and recording an entire music album (mostly) in space. But the Canadarm2 on the ISS is from their hands. As the name indeed suggests. It also suggests that this mechanical space arm isn’t the first.

America has reached Mars with their rovers and orbiters. So has Russia and Europa. But who is the fourth player at Mars? The ISRO Mangaluyaan is orbiting Mars since 2014 and is India’s first interplanetary mission. The ISRO was founded in 1969 and hasn’t exactly sat quietly since. When first relying on other agencies for their satellite launches, in January 2017 they launched 104 satellites with one rocket, of which 96 of American origin. India wants to expand their lunar exploration and is also aiming to go to the sun in 2019/2020. Also planned for 2020 is a mission to Venus, a planet currently ignored by other agencies. India might not be the first country people think of when they think about space. But not paying attention to them is not just a waste, it’s an insult.

Interesting space organisations

There is plenty to look forward to. Space Exploration is on a definite growth and with so many players it may lead to even greater things. Competition can be a good thing. None of the agencies want to risk failure though failure will happen from time to time which all agencies benefit from. There are two other space programs I want to put my focus on and apologise to all space agencies I haven’t mentioned here. This is already my longest post to date, know that I salute all of you.

In Andy Weir’s book Artemis, Kenya is the important player on the lunar city. An African country? Why not. Kenya has been the first country launching a satellite into space so Weir got that right. We may know Africa best from safaris and starvation (thank you, USA for Africa) and where this a part of Africa, it’s important to know that Africa has a lot more to offer. Several countries have their own space agencies and are working hard on becoming part of space exploration in the future. Not so long ago, Mauritius held an important space seminar, Launching Africa. It showed that we should not underestimate Africa. It’s a movement that want to engage people and raise space awareness on that continent. It looks very successful and I for one would welcome them in Space Exploration.

In Denmark a group of amateurs are working voluntarily and in their free time on an amateur manned space program. You read this right. The non profit organisation entirely relies on donations and people’s knowledge they give for free. They have already successfully launched rockets (unmanned) and aren’t resting until they can safely send an amateur astronaut into space. Finding that volunteer might prove more difficult than one might expect. But the Copenhagen Suborbital is one to watch, I’m positive they will accomplish something astonishing in the next few years.

To boldly go

And all this is just a fraction of what humans are up to in order to explore space further. We still have a long way to go until we can build the Enterprise and boldly go where no human has gone before. But even the Enterprise wasn’t build in one day. What we’re doing right now are the first small steps towards it. And if we would set aside our worldly differences, a Federation might only speed up the progress. The launch by American Space X of the private Israeli moon probe from SpaceIL is an example of great cooperation. Keep exploring wherever you are, and never let anyone tell you that you can’t. It’s only then we will make a real gigantic leap again.