Space Sunday special: Michael Collins

Michael Collins in his official NASA Apollo 11 photo. Credit: NASA

On Wednesday, April 28th, 2021. the news came that Michael Collins, the Command and Service Module pilot on Apollo 11 had passed away at the age of 90.

Collins was the unsung hero of Apollo 11. While Armstrong and Aldrin held the world’s attention, he quietly circled the Moon in the CSM on his own. A natural loner, he stated he never really felt lonely, and in the 48 minutes of each orbit when he was out of radio contact with the Earth as Columbia passed round the far side of the Moon, has was not afraid. Rather, he felt “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation”.

Born on October 31st, 1930 in Rome, Italy, Collins, was the second son and forth child of James Lawton Collins and Virginia Collins ( née Stewart). The Collins family was steeped in military service, a fact that helped shaped Michael’s life.

Rising to the rank of of major-general, his father served in the 8th Cavalry during the Philippine–American War, and also saw deployments in both World Wars; he was also an aide-de-camp to General of the Armies John Joseph (Black Jack” Pershing. His brother – Michael’s uncle – was General J. Lawton Collins, the Army Chief of Staff during the Korean War. Collins’ elder brother, James Lawton Collins Jr., also served in US Army in World War II and rose to the rank of brigadier general, and served as the U.S. Army Chief of Military History from 1970 to 1982.

Given his father’s career, Collins spent the first 17 years of his life following his father to his various US and overseas posting. During this time – and possibly fuelled by his father’s tale of flying on a Wright Brother’s biplane in 1911 – he jumped at the chance to take the controls of a US Army Air Corp Widgeon being flown by a family friend, awakening a nascent talent for flying.

Graduating from college in 1948 Collins briefly toyed with the idea of entering the US diplomatic service,  but opted to follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother, entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, sharing his class with future fellow astronaut Ed White. Graduating from West Point in 1952 with a BSc in military science, Collins had the choice of pursuing an Army or Air Force career and decided on the latter in part because of his love of flying and the rate at which aeronautics were developing, and in part because given the careers of his father, uncle and brother, he was worried about accusations of nepotism should he enter the Army.

Collins aboard Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

It  turned out that Collins was a “natural” pilot who easily took to flying jets. After training, he was selected for advanced day fighter training – a highly dangerous activity at the time, with 11 of his classmates killed during the 22 weeks of the training course. He also trained with fighter-bombers and gained qualifications in nuclear weapons delivery as well as maintaining his edge as a fighter pilot, winning first prize in a 1956 gunnery competition.

During the late 1950s, Collins was awarded command of a Mobile Training Detachment allowing him to accumulate over 1,500 hours flying time, which in turn gained him admittance to the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School. From 1960 through 1962, he flew numerous jet aircraft – although the test pilot’s life of hard flying and occasional ’bouts of hard drinking in celebration / commiseration encouraged him to quit smoking, with a four-hour flight as co-pilot of a B52 Stratofortress bomber getting him through the initial stages of nicotine withdrawal.

In 1962, like millions of others, Collins witnessed the flight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. As s result, he applied to be a part of the second NASA astronaut intake, but his application was unsuccessful. However, as the Air Force was trying to enter space research via its own means, Collins applied for a new postgraduate course offered on the basics of space flight. He was accepted into the third class, studying alongside future astronauts: Charles Bassett, Edward Givens and Joe Engle.

In mid-1963 NASA started recruitment for their third astronaut intake – and Deke Slayton, the Chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA, personally called both Collins and Bassett and offered them places in the astronaut training programme after reviewing their applications.

After completing his basic training, Collins opted to take pressure suits and extravehicular activities (EVAs, also known as spacewalks) as his specialised area of study. In writing his autobiography, he admitted that he was concerned at being excluded from the planning for the first American space walk – undertaken by Ed White in June 1965 – despite have the greatest expertise in the practical operation of space suits and in EVA protocols.

He was the first Group 3 astronaut to receive a crew assignment – back-up pilot for Gemini 7, which assigned him a flight seat on Gemini 10, alongside mission commander John “Jim” Young, who would go on to become NASA’s most experienced astronaut, flying Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle.

Collins (right) with John Young ahead of their Gemini 10 flight. Credit: NASA

Gemini 10 was one of the most ambitious of the Gemini programme. It carried fifteen scientific experiments – more than any other Gemini mission outside of Gemini 7; it also called for two EVAs, and multiple rendezvous and docking with two Agena target vehicles. The EVAs meant that Collins became the first person to complete two spacewalks in the same mission.

Following the success of the 3-day Gemini 10 mission, Collins was assigned to the backup crew for the second crewed Apollo flight (Apollo 2), serving as the lunar Module Pilot, with Frank Borman as Commander and Thomas P. Stafford the Command Module Pilot. The training exposed Collins to both piloting the lunar module and the command module, and allowed him to receive training as a helicopter pilot – helicopters being believed to be the best way to simulate the descent of the lunar module.

With the ending of the Gemini programme, NASA opted to reshuffle the Apollo mission line up, axing Apollo 2 as it was seen as largely a re-run of Apollo 1. This and alterations to the crew rosters resulted in Collins – with the benefit of his experience and vehicle exposure – being transferred from lunar module pilot to command module pilot. In his role, he was promoted to the prime crew for Apollo 8.

Tragedy and health then intervened: the first in the form of the Apollo 1 fired that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and which prompted a redesign of the Apollo Command Module and a reorganisation of the planned Apollo flights. The second came as a result of Collins suffering a cervical disc herniation in early 1968 that required surgery. As a result, Collins was initially moved from Apollo 8 to Apollo 9, and then removed from that mission to allow time to recuperate from his surgery.

As a result of all of this, Collins was selected with fellow Group 3 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and the exceptional Group 2 astronaut Neil Armstrong for the crew of Apollo 11, now earmarked to make the first crewed landing on the Moon – providing Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 missions completed successfully.

Collins (left) with Edwin Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in an engaging black and white portrait (later colourised). Credit: NASA

Given his role as Command Module Pilot, Collins often trained separately to Armstrong and Aldrin – and given they would be the two who would be the first humans to land on the Moon, they often took the lion’s share of media interest . Yet it was his role in the mission that perhaps carried the heaviest burden: if anything went wrong with the lunar module that left his colleagues stranded, Collins would be the one who would have to abandon them to their deaths and return to Earth alone.

Apollo 11 lifted-off from Kennedy Space Centre on July 16th, 1969. The mission has been documented to such a degree (including in these pages), that little need be said about the major elements. While Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface, Collins – who was also responsible for design the mission’s patch – kept himself busy with a range of tasks aboard the command and service module, which he came to regard as his personal space to the extent he wrote a dedication to the vehicle in the equipment bay:

Spacecraft 107 — alias Apollo 11 — alias Columbia. The best ship to come down the line. God Bless Her. Michael Collins, CMP

He also dealt with a potential malfunction in the vehicle’s coolant system which, if unchecked, might have resulted in parts of Columbia freezing.

Mission Control advised him to follow a complicated procedure for taking manual control of the system as he passed out of radio range around the far side of the Moon. When he regained radio contact, he reported the issue dealt with – although he did so by the simple expedient of ignoring Mission Control entirely and simply switching the system to manual control and then back to automatic!

I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.

– Michael Collins, recounting how he felt after Armstrong and Aldrin had departed for the lunar
surface, and he was passing around the Moon’s far side
Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, 1974)

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Sharing Memories of Us in Second Life

Memories of Us, April 2021 – click any image for full size

Occupying a quarter of a Homestead region that goes by the same name, Memories of Us is a corner of Second Life that Shawn Shakespeare (once again!) pointed me towards as a place to visit.

Designed by Candi McCulloch (Candi Melune), this is a setting that is easy on the eye, centred on a lake ringed by land that is mostly low-lying, but which does rise to the north-east, where broad waterfalls feed a stream that in turn curves its way around to feed the lake.

Memories of Us, April 2021

The landing point sits alongside an open field, where a lean-to stands and what looks like a Romany camp site has been established.  From here, a path winds its way around the lake, and visitors are invited to follow it on foot or by bicycle – although by warned that as the path does climb into the north-side uplands, getting all the way around on two wheels might be a little difficult! Those who have wearable horses are invited to use them and ride the path if they wish.

As well as the camp site, there are various places to sit waiting to be found, ranging from an old camper trailer to picnic tables and benches at various points around the setting, as well as the more esoteric – a blanket suspended from the branches of a tree or an upturned rowing boat on the lake’s shore.

Memories of Us, April 2021

Those who would like to spend time on the water can do so via the rowing boat that is sitting on the lake. Oars will be offered on sitting, so you can row yourself/ves out into the middle of the water, and the rezzer will leave a further boat for others to use. Note the boat you’re in will de-rez after you stand up.

Memories of Us is a simple, natural setting that really doesn’t need much in the way of exposition as it speaks for itself. There are one or two little points where the landscaping could do with a small amount of tidying up, but nothing that actually glaringly pokes you in the eye. Certainly this is a place where time can be whiled away peacefully – just be sure to have local sounds enabled to be more fully immersed!

Memories of Us, April 2021

SLurl Details

Motion and poetry in Second Life

Selen Minotaur: On the Move, April 2021

Currently open at her gallery  space in Second Life is a new exhibition by Selen Minotaur. On the Move is a celebration of movement and life centred on Selen’s photography whilst combining setting, images, 3D art and the written word to present an environment which Selen describes thus:

The installation is meant to be a place out of time, where sculptures by Mistero Hifeng and Cherry Manga  blend into a décor between surreal and fantasy with a majestic dome (designed and built by Luxor Ragnarok AK moebius9), [displaying] unpublished photographs of mine, suspended like stars, and poetry by Andrée Chedid are projected on the floor.

– Selen Minotaur on On the Move

This is an environment in which visitors must have Advanced Lighting Model active (Preferences → Graphics → make sure Advanced Lighting Model is checked), and if your system can handle them, also enable shadows. Viewer should also be set to Use Shared Environment (World menu → Environment → Use Shared Environment).

Selen Minotaur: On the Move, April 2021

With the viewer correctly set, On the Move can be reached either directly – as per the SLurls in this post -, or by clicking on the Map teleport globe outside of Selen’s main gallery (a similar sphere at On the Move will teleport visitors back to the gallery).

On arrival, I strongly recommend just moving slightly clear of the landing point and then allowing everything to rez / render fully so that the complete setting can be properly appreciated: the outer, water-borne space with the sculptures referenced by Selen, the inner garden and the dome with its display of art.All three are wrapped within the installation’s core themes, from the rippling of life-giving and sustaining water, through the symbolism of the violin and bow and music created by the movement of one upon the other, the timelessness of the cosmos as seen the the motion of the star-like motes that float through the garden, and more.

Selen Minotaur: On the Move, April 2021

Within the dome, Selen displays her work in two ways: as a series of animated canvases circling slowing under the dome’s roof, and as panels placed around the dome between its columns which display the images in turn. These are pieces in which life and art are joyously celebrated, each conveying a perfect sense of motion which in turn offers a story, whilst mood is additionally set by projections of Andrée Chedid’s poems on the floor.

There is a timelessness through the installation that is captivating, a fusing of environment, lighting, framing through the use of water and the dome, and even the manner in which the art is presented through the slowly circling (and rotating) canvases.

Selen Minotaur: On the Move, April 2021

Whilst double-sided, the twelve pieces carry something of a mystical edge to to them: they float in what might be regarded as a starlit sky that suggests they float like the signs of the zodiac, their slow circling marking the passage of time and the seasons, their rotation a metaphor for the more frequent passage of time as we experience it through the passage of days.

The opening of the exhibition featured a dance recital featuring Mist (Procrati Mistwallow) dancing to new compositions by Dandy Pianoman (pianoman1968) and supported by bass player Kali Beeswing that also encapsulated the core themes of life and motion within the exhibit. For those who were unable to attend, two video screens within the dome offer the opportunity to watch a machinima of the installation which includes aspects of the performance.

Selen Minotaur: On the Move, April 2021

Captivating, evocative and vibrant, On the Move is well worth immersing oneself in, both for the art and for the environment itself.

SLurl Details

  • On the Move (Selen’s Gallery, Royale, rated Moderate)