Saturday, July 20, 2019

Michael Collins Drops Off Two Guys at the Moon...

"WAIT IN THE CAR, MIKE," Neil and Buzz said, hopping out after their four day, 238,900-mile road trip. "Gonna take a walk, talk to some folks, grab some rocks. You drive around the block, we'll be right back."

Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong conquer the Moon
Life Magazine photo.
With that, Michael Collins, a dutiful, low key sort of guy listened to the radio, sipped coffee, circled and waited for his cohorts to return from their errand.

Or not.

The actual details likely differed, perhaps substantially, but just in dialog, not in result.

On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first to human beings to set foot on the Moon, Earth's orbital companion for the past 4.5 billion years or so, previously an unreachable place in the sky.

Armstrong, the commander of NASA's Apollo 11 mission, arrived preloaded with matchless lines that would echo down through history: "The Eagle has landed," "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" and "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky."

Apollo 11 blasted off
on July 16, 1969.
Life Magazine photo
Aldrin, the second man off the lunar lander, helped plant a U.S. flag on the dusty surface and posed for pictures taken by his boss with a Hasselblad camera. And, during their relatively brief 2 1/2-hour lunar romp, the men collected roughly 13 pounds of rocks.

Fulfilling a fundamental dream of human existence, Armstrong and Aldrin spent more than 21 hours at Tranquility Base (another Armstrong-ism) etching their names in history.

Meanwhile, Collins flew around the Moon alone in a spaceship called Columbia -- glimpsing the dark, far side we can't see from Earth -- waiting for the others to fly up from the surface aboard top half of the lunar lander Eagle and rejoin him for the long ride back home.

Eventually they did, leaving behind a wire-stiffened flag, a solar wind experiment and the lunar module's descent stage. Affixed to one leg of that landing craft, a stainless steel plaque bearing the signatures of all three travelers and President Richard Nixon, stating, "We came in peace for all mankind. July 1969 A.D."

The facsimile signature was as close as Michael Collins would get.

Imagine flying nearly half a million miles to ferry two companions to a place where no man had gone before, while your assignment is simply to wait for them to return.

Michael Collins did that, without evident rancor, bitterness or disappointment. He was a pilot flying his mission.

"I didn't feel lonely or left out," Collins wrote in his recently republished memoir, Flying to the Moon. "I knew my job was very important and that Neil and Buzz could never get home without me." So he flew, and waited, and listened to pre-recorded music including, he said without irony, the 1965 Jonathan King song, Everyone's Gone to the Moon.

Collins actually had another destination in mind, he said: Mars. "It, not the Moon, is where I wanted to go as a child."

The Collins-designed mission patch.
That said, after the travelers returned, they were kept in quarantine for nearly three weeks, until scientists were sure they'd not returned with Moon bugs. Then the now-world famous trio was released to the public for a trip around the world good will tour that included a ticker tape parade down New York City's lower Broadway, a thoroughfare nicknamed the Canyon of Heroes.

And then Collins walked away from the space program, returning to his Earthbound life as a husband and father.

Armstrong, famously reclusive, gave few interviews and died in 2012 at age 82. Two years later, Congress renamed NASA's primary flight research center in his honor, adding to a veritable mountain of accolades he'd received in his lifetime, including a Presidential Gold Medal bestowed by Richard Nixon. His name also adorns a museum, an airport, public schools and an engineering center at his alma mater, Purdue University.

Aldrin, 89, too received those medals, had schools named in his honor, a lunar crater and this toy.

At 88, Collins legacy is less distinct as he shares his name with a noted Irish independence leader about whom a movie was made starring Liam Neesen. Born in Rome, Italy, the son of a career Army officer, spaceman Collins wrote that he had no home town to honor him with a parade after his first spaceflight, Gemini X, in 1966.
Special edition.

He graduated West Point but opted to join the Air Force, rather than the Army, becoming first a fighter pilot, then a test pilot and then an astronaut. Upon leaving NASA, he briefly served as U.S. Secretary of State for Public Affairs. Like his crewmates, he was honored by the president, Congress and other distinguished groups.

Collins retired from the Air Force with the rank of Major General in 1982.

Today he dreams of mankind traveling into the solar system, perhaps establishing a permanent town in space called Libra at the solar system's libration point where the gravities of the Sun, Earth and Moon cancel each other out. He's still willing to go to Mars, just to find out what's there.

"And Mars is just the beginning," Collins said.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When Skylab Made Us All a Little Chicken Little

SKYLAB WAS MANKIND'S first semi-permanent off-world home. Shot into Earth orbit in May of 1973, the combination laboratory and apartment housed nine men during its cumulative 171 days of occupancy.

Its last three-man crew vacated the premises in February 1974, after a record 84-day stay, leaving behind an assortment of supplies including film, food, and a roll of teleprinter paper for future visitors. Then, using their own spacecraft, the astronauts nudged the space station into a higher orbit and returned to their planet.
Damaged upon launch, Skylab began life as a fixer-upper.
NASA photo taken by the lab's last departing crew.

For five and a half more years, Skylab circled the globe patiently awaiting new residents or the boost of a passing space shuttle, but neither one came.

Without assistance, the nearly 100-ton satellite gradually lost its war with gravity and drag and began falling back to Earth, reentering the atmosphere 40 years ago today, July 11, 1979.

Though its return was long forecast, the imminent arrival of a large falling house, superheated by atmospheric friction, set off a planetary frenzy.

While NASA -- America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- had put the laboratory in orbit, it had utterly and completely failed to make adequate plans for either keeping it there or gently landing it in some pre-ordained safe place.

Project Apollo, which provided launch vehicles for the lab and its three separate crews, had long since ended. The shuttle program was years behind schedule.  Only a year earlier, a Soviet-launched nuclear satellite crashed in Canada, spreading radioactive debris.

Now, NASA could identify a swath of Earth over which its wayward space station may come down, but it could not say precisely where. In Europe, some people panicked. In America, some held parties.

Poster board headgear promised
.00193 nanoseconds of warning you've been hit
The San Francisco Examiner newspaper offered a $10,000 bounty for the first piece of genuine wreckage brought to its offices. The rival San Francisco Chronicle promised $200,000 to any subscriber whose home sustained damage. Some enterprising folks cashed in by offering early-warning headgear.

NASA downplayed the risk, predicting the odds of any individual being struck by its falling object were about 600 billion to 1. Some of the implements aboard the disintegrating station: a 5,000-pound airlock, a 4,000 pound lead safe and a half-dozen 2,700 pound oxygen tanks.

Still, the space agency -- in a last ditch effort to influence the outcome -- fired the station's remaining booster rockets upon reentry, aiming it toward the Indian Ocean. They missed.

Skylab broke up in the sky, raining parts over rural Western Australia, earning NASA a $400 fine from the Shire of Esperance for littering. There, resident Stan Thornton collected some some of its fragments and flew to San Francisco to collect his prize.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive