|Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong conquer the Moon
Life Magazine photo.
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
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.
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.
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.
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