In a 2019 conversation with Stephen Sackur on the BBC's HardTalk programme, Michael Collins succinctly referred to an aspect of the space project of the 1960s. If Apollo-8 was a journey, Apollo-11 was the arrival. The astronaut, who died at age ninety last week, was focusing on the first manned flight around the moon, which was Apollo-8 in December 1968, essentially a preparation for a landing on the lunar surface by Apollo-11 in July 1969. He could not have been more correct.
Now that Collins is dead, it is the memories of the exciting 1960s, insofar as the race to conquer space is concerned, that weave their way into the mind. Collins, one of the three astronauts of Apollo-11, did not get to walk on the moon. Neither did he come by an opportunity later to be part of another moon mission, for soon after July 1969 he made his way out of service as an astronaut. But in those eventful days, especially when Neil Armstrong and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin exited the command module Columbia and descended to the lunar surface in the lunar module Eagle, it remained for Collins to man Columbia until the return of his colleagues from the moon.
It has often been remarked that in those two-plus hours when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, planting the American flag on its soil, collecting its rocks and positioning some instruments as part of scientific tests, Collins went in orbit around the moon all alone. It has been said, for good reason, that in those moments, Collins was the loneliest individual in the entire universe. On the dark side of the moon, he had no contact with Nasa on Earth. Neither did he have any links with his fellow astronauts on the moon.
That raises the interesting and indeed frightening question: What if Armstrong and Aldrin had not been able to lift off from the moon and rejoin Collins in the command module? On 20 July 1969, as the two men hopped and skipped on the surface of the moon at gravity one-sixth that of Earth, there were cheers at Nasa on Earth. And yet there were the fears. If the lunar module failed to lift off to link up with the command module, Armstrong and Aldrin would be condemned to a very tragic end, unable to return home. That would be traumatic for Collins, who would come back home alone, in the fullness of tragedy.
That did not happen, of course, and the three astronauts came back to the United States and to the world as heroic men who had set out from their home planet and ventured out into territory that had till then been the stuff of poetry and legend. A whole world rejoiced when they journeyed back home, to be welcomed by President Richard Nixon. Ironically, it had been Nixon's victorious rival at the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy, who had in 1961 promised to have a man sent to the moon and returned to earth before the end of the decade. When Apollo-11 went to the moon, Kennedy had been dead for close to six years.
There are the moments, poignant in their poetry, we have recalled from all the explorations of space through the 1960s. Armstrong's words, 'It's one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind', have made it to the recesses of human experience. Likewise, when the astronauts of Apollo-8, emerging from behind the dark side of the lunar orb on Christmas Eve 1968, intoned passages from the Bible for people on Earth, the moment was reminiscent of the beauty of Creation. As they read from the Bible, the spectacular view of Earth emerging out of the dark, in all its glorious beauty and at that great distance, added to a deepening of faith in religion and belief in the power of science to carry men deeper into the cosmos.
With all our recent experience of unmanned spacecraft landing on Mars, with helicopters left there to go for periodic studies of the surface of the red planet, our conviction that men will travel far beyond the confines of Earth, pushing newer frontiers in the universe, in the decades and centuries to be has been reinforced anew. The two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 have travelled billions of miles into the deeper regions of the universe. They are still travelling, carrying a message from Earth for any forms of life that might be spotted on another planet somewhere in the expansive space Earth happens to be part of.
And yet there are the tragedies which we recall, mishaps that have through the 1960s and later threatened to derail the human quest for this inquiry into the nature of the universe. Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee perished in a pre-flight test for Apollo-1 in January 1967. Nineteen years later, in January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger, within moments of lift-off, burst into flames. All seven astronauts on board were killed. In April 1970, the Apollo-13 mission to the moon had to be aborted because of technical problems it developed on the way. Fears that the astronauts --- James Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert --- were doomed and would be unable to make it back home overcame people all over the world. Thanks to human ingenuity, in combination with sheer luck, Apollo-13 was able to limp back to Earth. The world breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The passing of Michael Collins recreates all these images, sad as also electrifying, of the space programmes which pitted the United States against the Soviet Union in the tumultuous 1960s. Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Valentina Tereshkova have perennially been embodiments of the enterprising human spirit. Of the three Apollo-11 astronauts, only Aldrin remains. Armstrong passed away in 2012. Glenn, who later went into politics and became a US senator, died in 2016. Gagarin died in an air crash in 1968.
Gagarin's one hundred and eight minutes in space in Vostok-1, in April 1961, transformed him into a universal hero. Nikita Khrushchev, thrilled by this Soviet achievement of sending the first man in history into space, referred to the cosmonaut as 'the first Soviet swallow in the cosmos'. For his part, once he was back on Earth, Gagarin gave his fellow human beings an idea of how it looked out there in space:
'It is possible to see the remarkably colourful change from the light surface of the earth to the completely black sky in which one can see the stars.'
In these very different times of the twenty-first century, when nearly everything is taken for granted, we yet look up at the stars. They hold the key to the mystery of Creation. Michael Collins was part of that exploration into that mystery, into that story of what lies beyond Earth.
As Collins goes to his grave, it is the old image --- of his going around the moon, waiting for his fellow astronauts to return from the Sea of Tranquillity and then all three of them journeying back home --- which flashes in our collective imagination. The old excitement still rules the landscape of the human mind.