Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. By Michael Collins. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. (40th Anniversary Edition, June 23, 2009)
There have been several excellent Apollo astronaut memoirs, especially Gene Cernan’s The Last Man on the Moon and Jim Lovell’s Lost Moon, which was made into the feature film “Apollo 13.” But in honor of the passing of Neil Armstrong in August 25, 2012, I thought I would feature in Wednesday’s review the marvelous Michael Collins autobiography, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, which tells in detail the story of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission from the perspective of the crew. Neil Armstrong, of course, commanded that mission.
Indeed, Carrying the Fire, is the first candid book about life as an astronaut, written by the member of the Apollo 11 crew that remained in orbit around the Moon. The author comments on other astronauts, describes the seemingly endless preparations for flights to the Moon, and assesses the results. He also describes what he thinks of as the most important perspective that emerged from his flight, a realization of the fragility of the Earth. He wrote that “from space there is no hint of ruggedness to it; smooth as a billiard ball, it seems delicately poised on its circular journey around the Sun, and above all it seems fragile…Is the sea water clean enough to pour over your head, or is there a glaze of oil on its surface?…Is the riverbank a delight or an obscenity? The difference between a blue-and-white planet and a black-and-brown one is delicate indeed.”
It is a remarkably honest and reflective autobiography, and it extends a tradition of the aviator as litterateur into the age of space travel. Although written in 1974, and still available in inexpensive paperback editions, Carrying the Fire still has a freshness and crispness to it after some forty years.
Michael Collins had an illustrious career as an astronaut. Chosen in the third group of astronauts in 1963, he served as backup pilot for Gemini VII, pilot for Gemini X, and command module pilot for Apollo 11. On that last mission he became the loneliest man in the universe when his two crewmates, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed on the Moon while he remained in orbit around the Moon in the Command Module. In Carrying the Fire Collins writes of his solitude in lunar orbit in July 1969. As he disappeared on the backside of the Moon from Earth, he recalled, “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 over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side. I feel this powerfully-not as fear or loneliness-but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars-and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void, the moon’s presence is defined solely by the absence of stars.” He compared it to being in a skiff in the middle of the ocean with only the stars above and black water below. It proved a profoundly moving experience for him.
Michael Collins left NASA in 1970 and became the first director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, continuing to write eloquently of the possibilities of spaceflight. Among other works he published Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space (1988) and Mission to Mars (1990), a powerful exposition on the value of a human mission to Mars.
Carrying the Fire is a powerful and moving memoir. Read it more than once and lend copies to your friends. You, and they, will not be disappointed.