There are photographs that are simply stunning and breathtaking, and a few that capture moments which make us shed a tear.
One such photograph is of the Lunar Module Eagle, captured on its return to the Command Module from the Moon’s surface on July 21, 1969. In the background are the Moon and the Earth.
The Law of Conservation of Mass from classical physics claims that matter can’t be created or destroyed in isolated physical systems, but it can change from one form to another. According to this law, the material that makes up every human being, dead, alive or yet to be born, is in the frame of that photograph.
Even if you weren’t born at the time, you are in that photograph because the matter that eventually became you was already there on Earth. Everyone is. Except for one human – astronaut Michael Collins, the man behind the camera.
Collins is the third and largely forgotten crewman of the Apollo 11 mission, who didn’t set foot on the Moon.
While the world was praising astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for raising the American flag, Collins was alone out there alone, orbiting the Moon in the Command Module, fearing that if anything were to go wrong, he would have to leave his fellow astronauts behind and return to Earth by himself, as a “marked man”.
Collins did not hide his fears, the Guardian says. At the time, he wrote: “My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the Moon and returning to Earth alone.”
The recollection continues: “If they fail to rise from the surface or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life, and I know it.”
And it wasn’t only him. All of them were aware that the chances were 50-50 for making it safely back to Earth. Even President Nixon had a prepared speech for the possibility of failure of the Eagle.
While Armstrong and Aldrin traveled to the lunar surface in the Eagle, Collins waited in the mothership Columbia almost 24 hours for their return. As they descended, anxious Collins repeated to them – “Keep talking to me, guys”.
Cut from any contact with his home planet as his craft passed behind the Moon, Collins recounts his thoughts during this experience: “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 on the other side of the Moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”
When asked what he thought about in lunar orbit while Aldrin and Neil Armstrong descended to the Moon, Collins wisecracked: “I just kept reminding myself that every single component in this spacecraft was provided by the guy who submitted the cheapest tender.”
Despite their apparent calm, everyone who was involved in the program feared that the mission might end in disaster. And that fear was a constant companion of the three astronauts on their 240,000-mile trip.
Luckily it all ended triumphantly. And although for most people the name Michael Collins doesn’t ring a bell, he never felt detached from the Apollo 11 mission in any way. In one of his earlier statements Collins said: “This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.”
“Put LUCKY on my tombstone,” Collins told a NASA interviewer in 2009.