From The Archives -- For Michael Collins

[ Posted Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 – 16:41 UTC ]

Every few Julys, I like to re-run the following column. Since this year marked the 45th anniversary, I thought it'd be appropriate once again. The last sentence in the second paragraph should now rightly read: "Even today, after watching the news on Sunday?" but few other updates to the text would be necessary to bring it up to date (although I did tend towards a lot of exclamation points that might have been more judiciously edited out, in that note at the end). In any case, please join me in this salute to a man whom many have forgotten (or at least, can't readily identify anywhere near as easily as his two companions).


Originally published July 21, 2009

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


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “From The Archives -- For Michael Collins”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    and an SR-71 Blackbird, which is without doubt the coolest airplane ever made).

    I got to be up close and personal with that bird while stationed at Kadena AB, Okinawa...

    Known in local circles as the 'HABU', the SR71 was based at Kadena for overflights of North Korea, China and the Soviet Union..

    Was a pretty exciting time to be part of PACAF, the 313th Air Division and the 18th Tac Fighter Wing.... :D


  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I've always regretted that I didn't make time to visit the old Silver Hill Restoration facility when I lived in the DC area.

    The USAF Museum in Dayton, OH is a pretty close second to National Air and Space, and it just expanded display hanger space by about 33%.

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