Thursday, November 21, 2013

"They put a man on the moon, man on the moon"

I'm a bit of a space geek. After seeing the movie Gravity a few days back, I had a serious movie hangover and I was just craving for some "space stuff" so I bought the book "Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut's Story" on my Kindle and inhaled it last night.
(And also, if you have even the slightest interest in "the space stuff", or can just appreciate a very beautiful movie, please go see Gravity in 3D. I am willing to go as far as to say it is, over a long time, the first decent thing come out of Hollywood, and also, I finally realised the meaning and purpose of 3D - I am not the biggest fan of multi-dimensional movie experience, but this film you just don't want to see in any other way.)
But let's talk about the book instead. Author Michael Collins was one of the three astronauts that performed the first successful lunar landing by humans, back in July 1969. The crew consisted of him, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Collins was the only one of the three who didn't actually step on the Moon, his task was to remain in the command module on Moon's orbit and pick up the lunar module again after Armstrong and Aldrin had planted the US flag onto the surface of the Moon. It is natural that we mainly talk about Neil Armstrong as "the first man on the Moon", but if you read this book, you realise that without Collins, neither of the other two would have made it back home at all.  
Heart muscles and circadian rhythms were interesting things to know about, but they were not the most important things, as far as we astronauts were concerned. We were most concerned about understanding the spacecraft, which was a very complicated bundle of machinery – any part of which could break.
Collins starts this book from "the beginning" - how he became an astronaut and how astronauts were trained for NASA space exploration programmes (did you know that astronauts have to go through the jungle and desert training, in case they land their spacecraft in the middle of Sahara and need to survive until the rescue team arrives, or that they had to study geology to know which rocks to bring back from the Moon? fascinating!); he introduces his 13 companions from NASA Group 3, formed in 1963, and explains how each astronaut had a different task and things to learn when it came to knowing the spacecrafts they were to fly (for example, Collins himself was responsible for the development of space suits - it is proper science and like he said himself, it takes a scientist and a designer to put together an efficient, well-functioning space suit). He takes reader through his two space flights, first on the two-man spacecraft Gemini 10 and the second on Apollo 11, which made the successful Moon landing. He also talks about the catastrophic takeoff of Apollo 1, which was supposed to be the first manned spacecraft performing the lunar landing and which caught fire while still on the Earth, killing all three astronauts inside.
Apollo 11 crew - Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin.
Back in 1969, the technology was not nearly on the level that it is now, so naturally, flying to the Moon was in a way, much more an achievement than it would be now. Long story short, Armstrong and Aldrin were to land on the Moon, plant the flag, collect some Moon surface and then return to the Moon orbit in their lunar module Eagle, where they would be picked up by Collins in the spacecraft. Sounds simple, but Collins had a whole pile of scenarios for "what could go wrong" cases. Luckily nothing went wrong and all three arrived safely to the Earth.
In earth orbit, it takes ninety minutes to go around once. During this hour and a half, the astronaut will see one sunrise, one noontime, one sunset, and one midnight.
Buzz Aldrin poses with the US flag.
In total, feet of 12 men have touched the surface of the Moon. All 12 have been Americans and have flown Apollo spacecrafts. The last Moon landing took place in 1972, which might seem like an odd thing considering the development of technology and science, but not really that strange when we think about why the Moon exploration began in the first place - it was a space race between the Soviet Union and the USA, and when Soviets were the first to send a man to space (Yuri Gagarin was the first man in outer space, April 1961), Americans were determined to be the first ones to land men on the Moon. After six successful landings between 1969 and 1972, the subsidies to NASA space programme were cut drastically. Americans had made their point to the Soviets, and also, there was not that much to explore anymore at that stage, so later planned flights did not justify their cost.
Apollo 11 before the launch, Cape Canaveral, Florida.
This link has a multitude of awesome photos regarding the whole Apollo 11 programme.
Okay, I've been rambling over the geeky stuff for a long while now (for which I apologise - I realise not everyone finds space as fascinating!); I'll end with a few comments about the text itself. Michael Collins is of course no writer (he has other talents!), but he does write in a gripping way and almost makes you feel like you are in the spacecraft with him and his co-pilots (by the way, they never say "space capsule" - capsule is something you swallow, apparently :)). His style is very down to earth and matter of fact, but there are a few places where he tries to be funny (sometimes he succeeds, but in chapter 4 not really), or where he is more poetic, describing the total silence, quietness and loneliness of the space. (Space blues gets me every time.) The end bit was especially funny as he speculated over the possibility of human life in space, on Moon and even on Mars. He figured it would be possible to build a human town or settlement in the space and create a mini society, only we would have the problem of floating cows, due to weightlessness. This end part was a bit funny and a bit naive, but also made me go aww, considering it was written fair time back (1976, revised 1994) - it is nice to have dreams.
In conclusion, I recommend this book to any space geek - it's highly fascinating and gripping, and point of view of the first man who flew to the Moon, but didn't actually step on its surface.
An image of the Earth rise, shot by Apollo 11 crew.


  1. You wouldn't think it since he isn't one of the famous ones for that space mission, but this DOES sound really interesting! How cool that he helped design space suits! I'm going to hunt this one down.

    1. It was a random book for me because I was just searching for some space exploration themed book that would not be overly pricey and that one popped up. Thinking back I'm really glad I got to read this point of view at this time, it was very entertaining as well as educational, and it fueled my interest to space themed literature a lot further.


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