Saturday, February 4, 2012

carrying the fire

Mike Collins is not my hero.

He doesn't want to be. What Mike Collins is is smart, funny, charming and a little irreverent. Mike Collins is also a damn good writer; he insisted on no ghost writers, and its clear that he doesn't need one.

Here's a slice-o'-reading-life:

me (while reading): "Ha ha ha."
daughter: "What's funny?"
me: "Everything astronauts say is funny. Because they're the coolest guys in the world."

Collins traces he career from Air Force pilot, to test pilot, his try outs at NASA for the astronaut program, and then his two space fights aboard Gemini 10, where he did two of the first spacewalks, and then Apollo 11 which brought him, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the first moon landing.

Right, this is the guy who piloted the command module of Apollo 11, the Columbia, while Armstrong and Aldrin disengaged and flew away to make their dramatic moon landing aboard the lunar module, the Eagle.

The guy who orbited the moon alone, zipping around the dark side where all sight and sound of home disappear as the radio signal is lost and he, of all the billions of humans whose attention is fixed on the Eagle, is the only one who doesn't know what is happening. Was he lonely? No, he says, he was doing his job. And he was honored to do it.

The history of the Gemini and Apollo programs is laid out with a level of detail and insider insight that really bring the achievements of these projects home. Collins doesn't mince words or pull punches. He is as honest about himself, his fellow astronauts, their bosses and the multitude of engineers, scientists and subcontractors he worked with, as any autobiographer I've read. What they accomplished, with the technology available, was amazing.

A ghost writer might have edited this story down, but I'm not sure the honesty, or Collins' distinct voice would have come through, and I think that's what makes this book such a joy to read. When we're talking about something like the space program, and all we usually get to see is the bits they broadcast on television, I'm glad there are men like Michael Collins, with the guts and the patience to do the work he did, and then take the time to tell his story for the rest of us.

So Collins isn't a hero. As he says, he didn't save anyone from a burning building, or perform 'above and beyond the call of duty.' But what he did do, should make us all proud.

Read this book. And then, lets go put a man on Mars.

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