After splashdown at 4:51 pm on 24th July 1969 the Apollo 11 astronauts returning from the first moon landing had to don full-body Biological Isolation Garments before they could leave the conical command module that was bobbing in the Pacific Ocean. Having transferred to the dingy that had come to meet them, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins then had to scrub one another’s suits with diluted bleach.
From the dingy the astronauts were helicoptered to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and immediately sealed inside a windowed metal box, the Mobile Quarantine Facility, in which they were cocooned for the voyage back to Hawaii and the flight to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. There they could finally move into the much roomier quarters of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory but were still sealed off from the outside world until August 10th, fully 21 days after Armstrong and Aldrin had quit the lunar surface. It was an ignominious end to an amazing journey.
All of these precautions were to protect the Earth’s population from any infection that might have returned with them from the moon. But NASA’s quarantine measures were only partially successful. The planet may not have succumbed to some unknown lunar disease but I certainly got infected with something, and I suspect many others of my age did too.
I have been living with the condition over forty years now. The symptoms are largely benign — a low-level compulsiveness that means I have to take at least a passing interest in every rocket-powered foray into space. That I can cope with. But every so often there is a flare-up and I find myself yielding to a full-blown obsession. This time it was triggered by reading Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins’ account of his time as an astronaut with NASA. Once I started I couldn’t stop. It’s the oldest cliché in publishing but, just like an object in zero gravity*, the book was unputdownable.
Of the three Apollo 11 astronauts Collins comes across as the most approachable. Armstrong was famously reclusive after his return to Earth while Aldrin suffered bouts of depression and battled with a drink problem. Though he wrote a candid account of his voyage to the moon and his struggles to re-adjust to life after the Apollo program, I found Aldrin’s book a bit of a mess. Collins is more level-headed. You get a good sense of the man from his contributions to the 2007 documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, and the same friendly acuity comes across from the pages of his book.
Carrying the Fire gives a straight-forward account of Collins’ graduation from Air Force test pilot to NASA’s astronaut program in 1963 (having failed on his first attempt). He details the preparations and experiences of his first flight into space on Gemini 8, a program that aimed — among other things — to work out docking procedures in Earth orbit. The second half of the book is devoted to the historic Apollo 11 mission. It’s not a book for the casual reader looking for a story engineered to be dramatic. There is no shortage of tension and excitement but it emerges unadorned from the narrative. Collins combines a keen eye for detail with a disarming and sometimes brutal frankness when assessing himself and his crew-mates.
For me it was access to the sheer complexity of the planning and execution, and the many unexpected twists and turns, of the Gemini and Apollo missions that gripped the most. The story has a compelling blend of unimaginable risk-taking in a hostile environment with the camaraderie and jealousies that pushed and pulled at NASA’s first spacemen. In my mind it forged a new connection to the astonishing ambition of the moonshot, an event that hugely expanded humankind’s sense of itself. Collins is at his best when recalling the strange nitty-gritty of spaceflight but struggles to convey what the trip really meant for himself, Aldrin and Armstrong and is only partially successful in doing so. He observes wryly that it may have been odd to assign humankind’s greatest voyage of exploration to a bunch of macho and taciturn test pilots.
But he does at least try and I am grateful for that. I wonder if my generation connects more intensely with the moon landings because we lived through them. Even though my memories are faint and immature — I was only five years old in the summer of 1969 — it is an event that still resonates with inspiration. Within not so many years all the astronauts will be dead and not long after those who witnessed it on TV will be gone too. When that time comes, I hope that Collins’ book might still keep the flame alive.
*Strictly, ‘zero-gravity’ is the wrong term and I should say ‘free-fall’ but frankly zero-gravity is a better descriptor and I’m sticking with it.