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SPACE ... THE FINAL FRONTIER

On the death of Apollo 11’s Michael Collins and the quest to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins. (Photo: Nasa)

April 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of manned space flight, while the death of US astronaut Michael Collins at age 90 provides an opportunity to contemplate what it has all meant and where it may be going.

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” — Introductory words to Star Trek and Star Trek: Next Generation TV series episodes.

“We came in peace for all mankind.” 

The words on the plaque on the lunar lander engine module left on the surface of the Moon by the Apollo 11 mission after they had returned to their command module for the voyage home.

It comes as something of a shock to learn that Michael Collins – the US astronaut who manned the Apollo 11 command module orbiting the Moon while fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the lunar surface – died at age 90, on 28 April. The space flight the three had carried out on the backs of a vast cooperative effort – that included thousands of technicians, scientists and engineers – was the first time humans had left Earth to arrive at another entirely different piece of the solar system’s real estate.

Collins proved to be a contemplative man somewhat beyond the usual among the astronaut fraternity. As he orbited alone, he meditated upon the truth that while he was circling the Moon, he was the most truly solitary human being who had ever lived. The two astronauts on the Moon at least had each other for company and comfort. 

In fact, while Collins was in his craft orbiting the Moon, he was out of contact with everyone else for extensive periods of time. In his memoir, Carrying the Fire, Collins had written of this realisation: “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I feel this powerfully – not as fear or loneliness – but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.”

The photo Michael Collins took of the lunar module Eagle on 21 JUly 1969. (Photo: Nasa / Michael Collins)

While he was in the command module, he had also taken photographs of the Earth and the surface of the Moon that, along with those Earthrise pictures taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts, and the 1972 photograph of Earth taken by Voyager 1 (the solar system-exploring, unmanned craft launched in 1971) collectively became emblematic of the reality that humanity was utterly dependent on our “small blue dot”, as astronomer Carl Sagan had memorably labelled our Earth.

It is worth considering the curious fact that this new, holistic view of the Earth, courtesy of space exploration, has become a symbol for the rise of a global environmental movement that reminds us there is only one Earth and no currently accessible Plan B planets. Accordingly, human endeavour must redouble its efforts to preserve, rather than destroy, it.

While Collins never landed on the Moon, as no future flight for him ever occurred, rather than being unable to move beyond the space programme, he went on to head the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and he later served in a high-ranking position in the Department of State, along with service on the boards of various organisations such as the National Geographic Society. Among his efforts there, he championed support for future missions to Mars.

For some, he is also wryly remembered for having advised Armstrong, while they were en route to the Moon, that Armstrong’s first words upon stepping on lunar soil should be to scream, “Oh my God! What is that?” and then kill his spacesuit mike transmissions. Science fiction readers might have been delighted, although the panic that would have ensued back on Earth would probably have been even greater than the fright Orson Welles’ dramatisation of HG Wells’ story The War of the Worlds had given Americans in 1938. Fortunately for history, Armstrong declined Collins’ advice, and, on 16 June 1969, said instead, “That’s one small step for [a] man. One giant leap for mankind.”

In these past several days, still another extraordinary moment in space exploration has taken place, and that, of course, was the successful flight to the International Space Station by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Dragon with a relief crew – and its equally successful return to Earth with a team who had finished their time on the ISS. 

Unlike all other craft so far, SpaceX Dragon was not built by a government via contracts with manufacturers and subcontractors, or directly by government facilities, as in the case of Russian and Chinese craft. Instead, it was the product of a private manufacturer, and the reusable spacecraft is being contracted by Nasa almost like an ultra-high priced rental car, stocked with all the bells and whistles, to ferry crews to and from the space station.

Other assignments for the craft or its successors may follow. The SpaceX Dragon’s booster rocket is being recovered for reuse, as is the crew module, and the whole thing is highly automated, so the craft’s commander can just about sit back and enjoy the ride while the vehicle and its onboard computers do the work. Not surprisingly, Musk is also an enthusiast for human missions to Mars.

But we should also commemorate the 60th anniversary of manned space flight. Most readers of this column have not lived in a world in which humans could only dream about space flight. Older readers, like this writer, born in the early years of the post-war baby boom, probably devoured science fiction and media stories about the coming Space Age, and eagerly looked forward to the real thing, a development that seemed inevitable and easy in light of technological innovation.

On 4 October 1957, when the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite, that success marked the beginning of the actual Space Age. However, coming as it did in the midst of the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, this Russian satellite and its transmitter’s somehow threatening “beep, beep, beep” (Could the Russians put nuclear missiles on a larger Sputnik?), triggered fear and anxiety in the US, and an increasingly competitive space rivalry between the two nations.

Listening to and thinking about that Sputnik transmission, many US leaders bemoaned the quality of Stem (science, technology, engineering, and maths) education in the US, leading to serious initiatives to revitalise the elementary and secondary education that led to these areas, as well as growing amounts of Stem-related federal aid at the tertiary educational level. All of this was taking place in parallel with the growing US/Soviet competition to build missiles for atomic weapons – and the warheads themselves. For many around the world it seemed an increasingly perilous time.

Then, in a shock to Americans even bigger than Sputnik, on 14 April 1961 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned successfully to Earth after his unprecedented single orbit around the Earth. This voyage put a human face on space travel and even more thoroughly panicked the US, given the fact that the face was Russian and not American. (Compare the two first space voyagers and their equipment here.)

Both nations had already put animals into space to test their equipment, but Gagarin became the first human. Earlier, the Russians had sent several dogs into space, and the Americans had sent Ham the chimpanzee into space. For those interested, Ham lived on until 1983, in his comfortable retirement at the Washington National Zoo.

The US suborbital launch on 5 May of Alan B Shepard, a month after Gagarin’s flight, went some distance towards restoring the US’s wounded pride, and the space race was now for real. In his 25 May 1961 speech, President John Kennedy told the US Congress that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”.

With Armstrong and Aldrin’s arrival on the lunar surface and several succeeding missions, Kennedy’s pledge was redeemed, but the programme was already losing support and suffering budget woes, amidst the cost and carnage of the Vietnam War. Thereafter, the future for space exploration seemed increasingly limited – leaving the Space Shuttle programme and US participation in the International Space Station as the only real manned programmes – and questions grew about the way forward. As a result, SpaceX Dragon’s recent success may have helped restore a real sense of possibilities and adventure in the US manned space exploration programme.

More importantly, still, the continuing successes of planetary missions, such as the Mars Perseverance Rover mission, are carrying out serious scientific exploration on the Red Planet, and trying to answer important questions about the potential for life on Mars. This newest mission includes a mini-helicopter designed to operate in the ultrathin atmosphere on Mars. Just maybe, between the excitement of the SpaceX Dragon, the Mars Perseverance mission, and other future further planetary probes by the nations of Earth, a sense of excitement can return to the contemplation of worlds beyond our own. Or as Walt Whitman set it out in When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

For those of us who grew up eagerly reading stories by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K le Guin, HG Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and all the others, and watching the images coming from the fertile imagination of Gene Roddenberry, we can hope that wonder and mystery have returned and that the itch to explore has been reignited. 

A final note. Years ago I visited Cape Canaveral while in the US on a family and work visit. This visit was something I had dreamed of for years, and, as we took the guided tour by bus of the vast facility, we made a stop at ground zero in the history of the US’s manned space flights. 

The blockhouse for the Mercury project – all those initial single astronaut flights up until the Gemini and Apollo flights – was on the tour. Going inside, we saw the launch control room that looked as if it had been cobbled together from army surplus communications gear and stuff discarded by ham radio operators. It had ancient black and white analogue dials, a rack of telephones, and even a narrow slit cut in one wall so staff in the command centre could look out through that window at the actual rocket, just in case the instruments failed to tell them what was going on with their launch.

By contrast, today’s control screens in Nasa’s launch facilities or on the SpaceX Dragon and its ground control facilities (or even a bog-standard computer game) are so much closer to what we have become used to seeing on the Starship Enterprise, that the sacred space of that Mercury blockhouse just about seems as if it had been sent to us from an ancient age. Mystery and wonder, indeed. DM

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