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The loneliest man in history

from Michael Khan, 27. July 2009, 09:04

Everyone knows who the first man on the Moon was. The second man's name should not be too difficult to remember, either. But the Apollo 11 crew had three members. The third man is easily forgotten, if indeed you took note of him in the first place. 

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In the case of Apollo 11 this man's name is Michael Collins. The astronaut who held the fort in command module "Columbia" while his two colleagues set out in the lunar module "Eagle" to the lunar surface and to their place in the history books got landed with the most thankless job in the history of spaceflight. 

Collins was one of the few Americans who had no access to a TV set, neither on July 20, 1969, nor on the following days, up to the crew's safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Especially for an American, this must have been a very dire and unusual hardship. While everyone else had seen images from the lunar surface, Collins hadn't - though he was the one human who was closest to the place where the action was - next to Armstrong and Aldrin themselves. Of all the events where images are meaningful and unique, he had to miss this one. 

But it doesn't stop there. It's not just that his part in this venture was such that he was certain to remain the unknown third man and that he had to make do without access to the information that all his compatriots and most other citizens of the world took for granted.

The command module pilot bore an especially onerous responsibility. Although he was arguably exposed to a lesser risk than his two crew mates - though certainly his mission was no picnic - the psychological stress must have been excruciating.

Had Armstrong and Aldrin suffered a fatal accident during landing, on the surface or during take-off - which would not exactly have been unlikely in view of the boldness of the mission and the sheer amount of new, unproven technology - he would have had to watch on from his place in orbit around the moon, unable to intervene.

Had the two not been able to lift off and thus remained marooned on the surface, Collins would have had to start the main engine at the opening of the return window and initiate the Trans-Earth Injection manoeuvre, abandoning his friends and colleagues to certain death far from home.

All of that would weigh heavily on a man's mind. But there's more: On every orbit around the moon, each of which lasts around 2 hours, Columbia spent 48 minutes in the occultation zone, where the Earth was not visible and radio communications were cut off. Had anything untoward happened on "Tranquillity Base" during these times, he would not have known until the end of the occultation.

Although Collins was anything but idle during his lonely vigil and therefore may have been too busy to spend much though on his situation, handling the burden of this rather unique combination of solitary confinement and heavy responsibility still requires a very unusual man.  

Other than Michael Collins, I would like to name specifically his successors in the Apollo command module: Richard Gordon (Apollo 12), Stuart Roosa (Apollo 14), Alfred Worden (Apollo 15), Ken Mattingly (Apollo 16 - Mattingly should have flown on Apollo 13 but was bumped because of a possible exposure to a contagious disease) and Ron Evans (Apollo 17).

(And yes, I admit that I had to look up some of these names).



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