Friday, 17 July 2009

Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins

I've read enough about Apollo 11 - and not just in my preparations for this Apollo40 celebration - to be aware of how its crew are normally characterised. Neil Armstrong is the strong, silent type, and has shunned all publicity since the Apollo 11 round-the-world tour. Buzz Aldrin is a fierce proponent of space exploration, extremely clever, but also very frank and blunt. And Michael Collins is the erudite one, the wine connoisseur, who was not as po-faced or serious as Armstrong or Aldrin.

These, of course, are the public perceptions of the three astronauts. And the best way to a better understanding of them is to read their biographies or autobiographies. Beginning with Michael Collins, whose Carrying the Fire is generally reckoned to be one of the best books of its type.

I've been disappointed by highly-recommended books on space before - see here - but happily I can confirm that both Michael Collins and his Carrying the Fire live up to their reputations. He is an engaging and readable narrator, surprisingly honest, and considerably more self-effacing than the other astronauts. (This last may also have been true of Pete Conrad, but his biography, Rocketman, was written after his death and doesn't really give a true indication of the man - see here.)

Like Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins owes his place in the history books to misfortune - in this case, his own. He had been initially assigned to the crew of Apollo 8, but a cervical disc herniation requiring surgery resulted in him being dropped from flight status. After he had recovered, he was assigned to Apollo 11. If it had not been for his back problem, it's likely Apollo 8 would have been his one and only Apollo flight - he was keen to retire from NASA after successful completion.

Which is a shame. Collins was command module pilot for Apollo 11, and remained in orbit about the Moon in Command Module Columbia. Of all the Apollo astronauts, Collins would probably have best described in prose what it was like to actually walk on the Moon. If he had not left NASA after Apollo 11, the normal rotation schedule would probably have seen him commanding Apollo 17... and so landing on the lunar surface. And then he would have been able to write about it.

For instance, take Collins' description of his first sight of the Moon from close quarters:

"The moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional, small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen. To begin with, it is huge, completely filling our window. Second, it is three-dimensional. The belly of it bulges out towards us in such a pronounced fashion that I almost feel I can reach out and touch it, while its surface obviously recedes towards the edges. It is between us and the sun, creating the most splendid lighting conditions imaginable." (p 387)

It is definitely the writing which lifts Carrying the Fire above other books of its type. In its approach to its topic, it is little different. It opens with a very brief précis of Collins' early life, mentioning - of course - his first aeroplane ride. It covers his entry into the US Air Force and his career before joining NASA. He then discusses the other astronauts, and takes time to briefly characterise them. Of his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts, he says:

"Neil Armstrong Makes decisions slowly and well. As Borman gulps decisions, Armstrong savors them - rolling them around on his tongue like a fine wine and swallowing at the very last moment ... Neil is a classy guy, and I can't offhand think of a better choice to be the first man on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin Heavy, man, heavy. Would make a champion chess player; always thinks several moves ahead. If you don't understand what Buzz is talking about today, you will tomorrow or the next day. Fame has not worn well on Buzz. I think he resents not being first on the moon more than he appreciates being second." (p 60)

To be fair, Carrying the Fire was published in 1974, at which point Aldrin was indeed failing to cope... but Aldrin did subsequently go on to "wear fame" the best of the three, and today is a tireless and vocal proponent of space exploration. And, of course, Aldrin's own words on the second man on the Moon "controversy" are entirely different in his own book, Return to Earth (see this blog tomorrow). Later in Carrying the Fire, during the mission itself, slightly different characters emerge for the two; and Collins' analysis on the trip back to Earth results in him referring to them as "amiable strangers" - an often-quoted phrase.

Collins provides a great deal of detail about his time in NASA. As all the astronauts were encouraged to specialise in an area related to the various missions, Collins chose space suits and Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA). He spent a lot of time testing the space suits for both the Gemini and Apollo programmes, and describes extremely well the experience of wearing them. In fact, Collins provides an impressive amount of detail about everything he did as an astronaut - most especially, of course, his two missions, Gemini 10 and and Apollo 11. His is the most descriptive and evocative accounts of missions from either programme I have read to date. And they are not only highly informative but a pleasure to read.

Also noteworthy is Collins' ability to explain the arcana of astronautics in an easy-to-understand fashion. Carrying the Fire by no means talks down to its reader, but neither is it as dense with "technobabble" as, for instance, Tom Stafford's autobiography, We Have Capture (see here). Collins writes, "NASA-ese is no worse than Air Force-ese or State Department-ese, I suppose each has its place, although none of them seems a desirable substitute for English" (p 76), and goes on to give examples of each. Carrying the Fire is, happily, written entirely in English.

Collins is also a nicely self-deprecating writer, not only unafraid to include his emotional responses in his account but also to comment on his own abilities and position (or lack thereof) in the Astronaut Corps. He is not always complementary about his colleagues, although he clearly likes and admires them. Neither does he agree that every decision made regarding Gemini and Apollo by NASA was the right one, or that the technology used was always ideal or best-suited to the job.

Above all, Carrying the Fire is an involving read. On finishing it, you're left with an excellent impression of what it was like to have been on the Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 missions, rather being left with a knowledge of the life and career of Michael Collins, astronaut. Compared to other astronaut autobiographies I have read, this is unusual. I would also say it was a good thing. Interestingly, this is also one of the few autobiographies which was not ghost-written, or written with the assistance of a ghost writer. As Collins himself says, "No matter how good the ghost, I am convinced that a book loses realism when an interpreter stands between the storyteller and his audience" (p xvi).

Highly recommended. If you want to read one autobiography by an astronaut, I can confirm that this is definitely one of the best.

(Note: unlike the other books I have written about on this blog, my edition of Carrying the Fire is not a first edition. The book was first published in 1974.)

Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins (2001, Cooper Square Press, ISBN 978-0-8154-1028-7, 478 pp + appendix)

1 comment:

Ronald said...

I'm glad to see you enjoyed this Ian. I really do think it is about the best space book written, for all the reasons you cite. Collins knows how to write. Your citation of his moon description is an excellent example.

RBeffa