Sixty Miles

Michael Collins in 1969

Michael Collins in 1969

It’s about 60 miles from Denver to Colorado Springs. That’s not very far, really. It’s also about 60 miles from Los Angeles to San Bernardino.

Michael Collins made a trip from the Earth to the Moon in 1969, but he never walked on the surface. Instead, he remained 60 miles away.

So why does that 60 miles seem like such a greater distance to me than the jaunt I might make to Colorado Springs?

I’ve spent the week leading up to the momentous 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing wondering how Michael Collins didn’t go crazy.

No, it has nothing to do with his supposed “loneliness” in orbit. Personally, I find that silly and kind of insulting to him. The dude was alone for one day after spending the three previous days crammed into a small spacecraft with two other guys.

I seriously doubt he was lonely; he probably enjoyed the room.

Instead, I’ve always wondered how it felt to make that historic journey and not be allowed to kick up a little lunar dust under your boots. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the focal points for billions of people, Michael hung out in the command module.

He orbited the Moon 30 times while the other guys made one giant leap. It takes a special person to say, “Yeah, cool. You guys have fun. I’ll wait in the car.

And it’s not like he was just waiting his turn. In fact, published reports say he would’ve been offered the chance to walk on the lunar surface during another mission, probably Apollo 17.

He turned it down.

Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin (L-R)

Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin (L-R)

I was a kid in July of 1969, living in northern Italy, where my dad was stationed with the Air Force. I have faint memories of watching the action on a small black-and-white television before dawn.

So I got to see it, and Michael Collins did not.

Oh, he heard the radio transmission from Neil Armstrong, announcing that the Eagle had landed. But he didn’t get to see the landing or the first step onto the surface.

How fair is it that I, a snot-nosed kid, had a great view of Neil and Buzz making history, and Collins didn’t? Seems wrong.

All these years later I still wonder how it hasn’t eaten away at him. To travel 240,000 miles, only to park it 60 miles from the promised land. Incredible.

Yeah, you say, someone had to be that guy. That’s right. And I would’ve wondered the same thing about anyone else in that particular space suit.

Richard Gordon had the same task with Apollo 12 just four months later.

Ever heard of Stuart Roosa? He orbited alone in February of 1970 while Alan Shepard got famous for hitting golf balls on the lunar surface.

And there were three other guys: Alfred Worden with Apollo 15, Ken Mattingly with Apollo 16, and then Ronald Evans with Apollo 17.

All six of those guys — Collins, Gordon, Roosa, Worden, Mattingly, and Evan — went all that way, trained like crazy, and risked their lives . . . and watched from the balcony.

Michael Collins in 2011

Michael Collins in 2011

On one hand I feel terribly sorry for them. On the other hand, I admire their ability to get that close to a lifelong goal, miss it by that much, and not pout.

So while the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of an incredible triumph of human technological wizardry and remarkable personal bravery, I’ll probably spend a few more minutes contemplating the flights of Michael Collins and the five other guys in the Oh-So-Close Club.

Michael Collins is now 88 years old and still not complaining. I’ll whine for him.

Dom Testa2 Comments