Matt Gurney: Few of our first space age greats remain to see the dawn of the second

Michael Collins, Apollo 11's Command Module Pilot, has died.

I don't claim to be psychic, but Michael Collins, the so-called "forgotten astronaut," was on my mind earlier this week — even before Wednesday's announcement that the Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot (CMP) had died of cancer, aged 90. There have been many stories of late concerning space exploration, from the Mars helicopter, the successful launch of Crew 2 to the International Space Station to news that SpaceX will design America's next generation of lunar lander. As a lifelong space nerd, I've been trying to regard all such stories with cautious optimism. I don't want to let my hopes get the better of me. But ... could it actually be happening? Could the true push into the solar system, widely expected after the moon landings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, finally be upon us? 

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To put it more simply: is a second space age upon us, an entire generation after the first?

Collins was part of the first space age. An Army brat interested in a military career, he chose the U.S. Air Force so that he'd never be accused of nepotism in the Army, which was full of high-ranked relatives. He was too young for the Second World War, and Korea, too. After a series of assignments that took him all over the world, like many of the early astronauts, he became a test pilot, pushing jet aircraft to the limits of mechanical and human tolerances. He missed the cut on his first attempt to qualify for astronaut training, but was invited to join the space program as part of the third class of astronauts, joining NASA in 1963. He flew on Gemini 10 in 1966, part of NASA's Project Gemini, where astronauts practiced and mastered the basic fundamentals of space flight. The Soviets had seized an early lead in the space race, and Gemini was America's way of quickly getting into space and developing the technologies and techniques, including long-duration life-support systems and in-space rendezvous, that would make the lunar landings the late President Kennedy had promised possible. While the Gemini astronauts learned how to live and work in space, NASA was frantically developing the much larger rockets and ships required to escape Earth orbit and journey to the moon. 

Collins needed back surgery in 1968, and was bumped from an earlier planned mission to be the CMP of Apollo 11. Apollo 11, of course, is the flight that famously carried the first men to walk on the moon. When Collins was assigned to it, joining Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, it wasn't clear that 11 would be the first to land — that required the flights before it to go well (which they did). But Collins was never going to land on the moon. As CMP, it was his job to remain over the moon while his crew mates took the lunar lander down to its surface. For a time, this made him the most isolated human in the history of our species — one man on a tiny ship, 400,000 kilometres from the rest of humanity but for his two buddies below.

The technical limitations that made this necessary are complicated (if fascinating), and mostly outside the scope of this article. A short version would be this: you need a heavier, bulkier vehicle to travel to the moon (and back) than you need just to land on its surface and then take off again. To save on weight and fuel, NASA chose to send a three-person crew to the moon in two different ships that were docked with each other: the command module, which did the heavy lifting on the journey to the moon and back to Earth, but also a smaller, lighter lunar module. (Plus an unmanned service module, but we won't dwell on that.) In lunar orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin got into the lighter lunar lander, detached from the command module, leaving Collins behind, and carried out their historic landing and its "giant leap for mankind" on July 20, 1969. Collins orbited above, waiting for them to return. For 27 hours.

He insisted in interviews over the years that despite press descriptions of him as the loneliest man in history, he never felt lonely. He actually quite enjoyed the privacy, he said. The Apollo spacecraft were cramped, and he said that when he wasn't busy flying the command module, he enjoyed the peace and quiet of having the ship to himself after the four-day trip from Earth. It was peaceful and "very happy." He did admit to some worry about disaster befalling Aldrin and Armstrong. He was trained to fly back to Earth alone in the command module if his two crew mates met a tragic end. This was a real worry for the entire program — no one knew what landing on the moon would be like, or how their little lunar lander would perform. There was a very real chance, in the words of a statement prepared for President Richard Nixon but thankfully never needed, that "the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."

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That didn't happen, as we all know. Armstrong and Aldrin's landing on the surface was a historic success, and a bit more than a day after they departed from the command module, they returned. The ships docked again, and the three men returned to Earth, to become American heroes and instant global celebrities. Aldrin has always seemed to at least partially enjoy the attention, but Armstrong and Collins never much did. Collins left the space program after Apollo 11, served briefly at the State Department, and then later as director of the National Air and Space Museum, and later, deputy director of the Smithsonian. It was a quieter life, which he seemed to enjoy — not surprising for a guy who found literally unprecedented solitude ... relaxing. He filled his later years with reading quietly at home, and politely tolerated the media's demands to speak publicly every time a major anniversary rolled around.

I admit to a long-held quiet admiration of Collins. Had I been one of the Apollo CMPs — an extremely hypothetical musing if there ever was one — I would have been insane with envy of those who got to actually set foot on the moon. Imagine going all that way and never taking the final ride down a few more miles. Collins never seemed bothered at all. He took two trips into space, did a fine job both times, and came back to Earth to find meaningful and fulfilling work here. He once told a reporter that sometimes months would go by without his flight on Apollo 11 crossing his mind at all. And you believed him. 

There aren't many of those guys left. Of the 12 men to talk on the moon, eight have now passed on, and the average age of the remaining four is now over 87. Twelve men flew to the moon without landing on it; with Collins' passing, six of those are now gone. Ten of the 16 Gemini are dead (that includes Collins). The last member of the Mercury 7, the astronauts of America's first manned program, was John Glenn. He died in 2016.

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These men (and, yes, their Soviet equivalents) were the heroes of the first space age. What followed was a long period of, if we're blunt, lowered ambitions. Without the intense pressure of a race for Cold War dominance, the space race fizzled for an entire generation. This is not to downplay the work and accomplishments done between Apollo and now. We've done remarkable things with shuttles, space stations and robotic probes. But humanity seemed to take a collective breather after the first space age, and spent the next few decades — an entire human generation, and my whole lifetime — pursuing worthwhile and important work without any real effort to push the human frontier any deeper into space.

That's probably changing. Advances in technology are allowing major strides in manned space flight. As launches get cheaper and more reliable, which, thanks to SpaceX, they are, the barriers to entry get lower. There are realistic plans to return to the moon in the next few years, hopefully this time to stay. Mars is the next stop, and though that's still at the very edge of our capabilities, it's at least on the cusp of being possible. If Elon Musk can figure out his proposed “Starship” vehicles and their giant rockets, Mars will be in our reach. That could be soon, perhaps as early as this year (though Musk does have a habit of missing deadlines).

The role in all this of a worsening Cold War 2.0 can't be ignored; the West's rivalry with China is heating up. Russia recently announced that it will be ending its participation with the International Space Station, and working with China on all space-related matters. Space is heating up again as a realm of international competition.

It would have been nicer if we'd found a way to advance into space that didn't require global conflict as a driver, I suppose, but I'm a pragmatist: I'll take what I can get. It's just barely possible that the next milestones in what seems to be a new space age are close enough at hand that we'll still have a few veterans of the first alive to see them. It’s a shame Michael Collins won’t be one of them. But at least he’ll be spared the interview requests.


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