Astronaut Michael Collins, who died last week aged 90, had no patience with the soubriquet “the loneliest man in history”. What nonsense, he would say – just “phony philosophy”. The phrase was bestowed on him after the Apollo 11 space mission in 1969: while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, Collins stayed in the spacecraft on his own, making 30 lunar orbits. During each 48-minute orbit, his radio would cut out – so he would sit, disconnected, staring at the dark side of the moon. Still, he was “not one iota lonely”, he insisted. He drank coffee and listened to Jonathan King’s song Everyone’s Gone to the Moon.
In his memoirs Collins reflected that viewing the world from afar might make politicians worry less about national borders: “I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed.” More practically, he commented on the spacecraft’s urine receptacles. “There are three sizes of receivers (small, medium, large), which are always referred to in more heroic terms: extra large, immense, and unbelievable.”
He never craved glory, said Aldrin in The Wall Street Journal. And when offered the chance to walk on the moon himself with Apollo 17, turned it down to be with his family. “I have seen the ultimate black of infinity in a stillness undisturbed by any living thing,” he said. It’s “a “precious thing that I will always carry with me”.