For Michael Collins

[ Posted Tuesday, July 21st, 2009 – 15:44 UTC ]

Quick -- who was Michael Collins?

No, not the Irish patriot who had a movie named for him, but the American Michael Collins. Don't recognize his name? Even today, after watching yesterday's news?

You're not alone. Very few people remember the name Michael Collins. And yet, without him, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wouldn't have been able to take those giant leaps for mankind down on the surface of the moon. Because Michael Collins was the guy who had to stay aboard Columbia, the "mother ship" of Apollo 11, which orbited the moon while the Lunar Entry Module (LEM) Eagle descended to the lunar surface.

While Collins never had a movie made just about him, he was referenced in a Jethro Tull song called "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me." In it, Ian Anderson addresses the feeling of being "left behind."

I'm with you LEM
Though it's a shame that it had to be you.
The mother ship is just a blip
From your trip made for two.
I'm with you boys, so please employ just a little extra care.
It's on my mind I'm left behind
When I should have been there.
Walking with you.

Yesterday, of course, was the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing. And, once again, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were prominent in the coverage. Michael Collins' name was mentioned, as an aside.

I think it's a shame that all the focus goes to the two guys who were first (and in Aldrin's case, second) on the moon (Collins' claim to fame is that he's the first guy to orbit the moon solo, not exactly the same in terms of bragging rights). Because these two guys didn't just decide to go to the moon one day and build a spaceship in their back yards -- there were thousands of people who worked tirelessly to make it happen.

Beyond Michael Collins, in other words, there were a lot of geeks in NASA who made the whole thing happen. Guys with thick glasses and bad haircuts, who put in thousands of hours imagining, designing, and testing everything from the spaceship itself down to the food the astronauts would eat (and all the other tiny, tiny details of the entire mission).

This army of scientists, engineers, testers, manufacturers, and test pilots were, in a very real way, the shoulders Aldrin and Armstrong were standing upon to reach the moon. Now, I know it's impossible to list them all or remember them all, which is why Collins, to me, has always kind of stood for them -- the enormous crowd of people who worked just as hard as Aldrin and Armstrong, but who shall never have the same name recognition with the public.

Going to the moon was the biggest achievement mankind has made in my lifetime. Sure, some other good things have happened since, but nothing quite on the same scale. It will forever be remembered as such, ranked with the invention of the wheel, the boat, and the airplane in terms of importance.

Collins was instrumental in how that moment in history will be remembered, as well. He was the Director of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum when it opened its doors on the National Mall in July of 1976 (part of the bicentennial celebrations that also included the Metro opening its first few stations). As anyone who has visited the Air and Space Museum can attest, it is a wonderful place to go and learn about the history not just of the big names in spaceflight (and flight in general, they've even got the Wright flyer there), but also of the platoons of geeks in the labs, machine shops, and test facilities who made it all happen.

So, I'd just like to say a big "Thank you!" to Michael Collins, both for being the guy everyone forgets about from Apollo 11, and for the beauty of the Air and Space Museum, where we can preserve the history of everyone who helped make it happen.


[Full Disclosure: The Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum lets me in -- for free! -- any time I visit, just because I wrote this column for them. Oh, wait! I'm completely wrong -- they let everyone in for free, every single day! I was there on opening day in '76, and love to go back whenever I get the chance (including their new annex out by Dulles airport, which has not only the shuttle test vehicle Enterprise, but also a Concorde and an SR-71 Blackbird, which is without doubt the coolest airplane ever made). And if you're looking for a different sort of Enterprise, visit the Air and Space Museum on the Mall, as it has the original model (which is huge) used in the Star Trek television series. Something for everyone!]


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “For Michael Collins”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    I have actually stood guard over the SR-71 when it was based out of Kadena AB, Okinawa. This was back when the Blackbird (at the time, it was locally known as the "Habu". These days, that moniker is worldwide.. was still classified and even accidentally seeing it on the ground would land the poor viewer in jail for the night and a stern warning from the AFOSI and the Base Commander.

    You haven't lived until you see one of those things taking off or in flight.

    "Yea though I fly thru the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For I am at 80,000 feet and climbing fast!"
    -Kadena AB HABU Pilot

    And yes, I also got to see the original USS Enterprise (Kirk's ship) at the Smithsonian in 1977. For a total Trekker like me it was heaven.


  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    The coolest thing the military did was to de-classify the SR-71 one month BEFORE they grounded them all for good and decomissioned them. This allowed the one at the annex to be flown from LA to DC, and set an official speed record. They took it up, refuelled it off coast, and crossed the continent -- coast to coast -- in 67 minutes, 54 seconds. One flew from from New York to London in under two hours, beating the Concorde by a full hour.

    Coolest. Airplane. Ever.

    See, I knew we could agree on something!



  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    The SR-71 served long after it was declassified. But that fact was, itself, classified. Such is the nature of intelligence work.

    For my money, the most amazing airplane America ever built is the B-70 Valkyrie.

  4. [4] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:
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