“Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
– Neil Armstrong. 3:18pm Houston time, July 20, 1969
It’s a terrible photo, I know. For me, though, it still takes me directly back to the day I saw them – saw Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins on a sunny spring day in Sydney, Australia. As part of their world tour, post Apollo 11, they were paraded down Elizabeth Street towards the building site that would soon be Jorn Utzon’s Opera House. We’d travelled to Mascot Airport to see them arrive by 707. And now, in the golden light, we waited. That’s me in the checked shirt. I was thinking of the morning a few months before when I’d walked to Manly Wharf, transistor at my ear, listening to The Moment. I was obsessed then by motor racing – I still am – but for this event I pressed “pause”. The Eagle’s landing surpassed anything I’d ever known.
I never got to meet Neil Armstrong; like many, I thought about trying to slide my way into one of his lectures in Columbus, Ohio, but I never did. He looked like the sort of gentleman who would appreciate a lack of attention. I met Dave Scott, though, at F1 races – and I listened to his Apollo 15 “team-mate”, Jim Irwin, speak wise words one Sunday morning in Hyde Park, London.
Through Charlie Chrichton-Stuart, one of Sir Frank Williams’s dearest friends and an F3 driver of great rapidity, I also discovered Carrying The Fire – the book written by Mike Collins in the wake of Apollo 11. I was in South Africa for the Grand Prix in 1981. Charlie and I had adjoining hotel rooms and on a sleepy, warm Wednesday afternoon I asked him what he was reading.
“The book written by the astronaut who didn’t land on the moon,” replied Charlie, puffing on yet another cigarette. “Mike Collins. The Command Module pilot. Absolutely brilliant. You can have it after I’ve finished. Lots of Edwards Air Force base and lots of Apollo detail. Can’t put it down.”
Charlie was correct. Carrying The Fire is without question one of the best books I’ve ever read – non-fiction or otherwise. Beautifully-written; beautifully alive.
And so I make no excuse for quoting a few extracts from it now, on the day we say goodbye to Neil Armstrong:
“…Although I can’t see the Lunar Module (LM), I can listen, as Neil and Buzz describe what no men have seen before – the view from the surface of another planet. I can’t help interrupting. ‘Sounds like it looks a lot better than it did yesterday at that very low sun angle. It looked rough as a cob then.’ ‘It really was rough, Mike,’ Neil replies. ‘Over the targeted landing area, it was extremely rough, cratered, and large number of rocks that were…larger than five or ten feet in size.’ ‘When in doubt, land long,’ I say, using the pilot’s cliché about never landing short of the runway. ‘So we did,’ he replies simply.
“Things must be going extremely well, for Neil and Buzz want to forgo a scheduled four-hour nap in favour of proceeding immediately out onto the lunar surface. I thought they might, as this has been a topic of debate for some months. It seems ridiculous to expect them to unwind at this stage of the game and suddenly fall asleep; on the other hand, if they do go EVA now and struggle back into the LM dog-tired a few hours later, and then are confronted with an emergency requiring immediate lift-of and rendezvous, they would be shot that they would probably make a lot of mistakes, and rendezvous is not a very forgiving phase of flight…
“When they are on the surface, I want to be able to hear them. What will Neil say, for instance? He hasn’t confided any magic first words to me, but I’ll bet he has some. Neil doesn’t waste words, but that doesn’t mean he can’t use them; he nearly always rises to an occasion, and if ever man had anything to say, this is the time. I want to hear him!
“Instead, I hear the President: ‘Thank you very much. I look forward to seeing you on the Hornet on Thursday.’ Then Houston abruptly cuts off the White House and returns to business as usual, with a long string of numbers for me to copy for future use. The juxtaposition of the incongruous: roll, pitch and yaw; prayers, peace and tranquillity. What will it be like if we really carry this off and return to earth in one piece, with our boxes full of rocks and our heads full of new perspectives for the planet?
“When the instant of lift-off does arrive, I am like a nervous bride. I have been flying for 17 years, by myself and with others; I have skimmed the Greenland ice cap in December and the Mexican border in August; I have circled the earth 44 times aboard Gemini 10. But I have never sweated out any flight like I am sweating out the LM now. My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to earch alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter. If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it…:
“After we get the rock boxes zippered inside white Fibreglass fabric containers, I have a chance to quiz Neil and Buzz about those parts of their experience this back-side absentee missed. ‘How about that lift-off from the moon; what did it feel like?’ ‘There was a little blast, then we started moving..the floor came up to meet you…maybe half a G or two-thirds of a g.’ ‘And the landing was no problem, because, as I understand it, the dust did not engul you but sprayed out parallel to the surface. Is that so?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And the dust can be light tan or battleship grey?’ What do you think it is? Basalt dust?’ No commitment there. ‘Well, do the rocks all look the same?’ No, there are differences, they say; some have ‘little sparkly stuff’ in them, and they had time enough to take samples carefully from the most interesting specimens they could find.
“When the time comes to jettison Eagle, I flip the necessary switches, there is a small bang, and away she goes backing off with stately grace. I simply can’t express my pleasure at not ever having to fool with the probe and drogue again! In fact, the whole LM has been nothing but a worry for me, and I’m glad to see the end of it. Neil and Buzz, on the other hand, seem genuinely sad: old Eagle has served them well and deserves a formal or at least a dignified burial. Instead, it is to be left in orbit, while Houston watches its systems slowly die. Then its carcass will be an orbiting derelict for days or weeks or months – until finally its orbit deteriorates and it crashes forlornly into the lunar surface.
“Seeing the earth from a distance has changed my perception of the solar system as well. The sun doesn’t rise or fall: it doesn’t move. It just sits there. Dawn means that we are rotating around into sight of it, while dusk means we have turned another 180 deg and are being carried into the shadow zone. No longer do I drive down a highway and wish that the blinding sun would set. Instead, I wish we could speed up our rotation a bit and swing around into the shadows more quickly. I do not have to force myself to call the image to mind. It is there, and, occasionally, I use it for other things, although admittedly I have to stretch a bit. ‘What a pretty day makes me think that it’s always a pretty day somewhere; if not here, then we just happen to be standing in the wrong place. ‘My watch is fast’ translates into: no, it’s not. It’s just that I should be standing farther to the east….”
Michael Collins’ other books include one for children – Flying to the Moon – and two more for adults – Lift-Off, tracing the history of manned space programmes, and Mission to Mars.