It’s been five decades since he went to the moon, and Michael Collins knows exactly what his next adventure will be.
“I’m going to find a nice big rock, and I’m going to hide under it,” Collins told me recently.
As the big anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission approached, Collins was bombarded with requests for interviews, appearances, and other ceremonial events. Similar solicitations came at the last significant milestone, and the one before that, and the one before that. Collins is used to the attention; press conferences are part of an astronaut’s job description. But that doesn’t mean he enjoys it. And this anniversary might be the most intense yet.
Collins never set foot on the moon. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin maneuvered the lunar module to the surface, Collins remained in orbit, manning the command module. He didn’t witness the landing; his spacecraft sped on after he dropped off the two other astronauts, and the view from that height is nothing but craters. He did hear Armstrong’s voice crackle over the radio, telling Mission Control he and Aldrin made it.
Collins circled the moon, completely alone, for more than a day. He listened as his fellow astronauts walked around the jagged terrain in their puffy white suits, unpacked science instruments, and scooped rocks into boxes. The voices vanished every couple of hours, as Collins’s command module slipped behind the moon, where neither the astronauts nor Mission Control could reach him. The views were stunning all around. But for Collins, the finest sight was the lunar module returning, a small dot moving in the distance, a speck of black against the gleaming gray. Soon Neil and Buzz would be back inside. They could all go home.