Apollo 11 Astronaut and Space Station Crew Reflect on Epic Moonshot

As Apollo 11 began its epic journey 50 years ago Tuesday (July 16), astronaut Michael Collins temporarily worried about their Saturn V rocket steering in the wrong direction.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators crowded the beaches near NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in awe of the power of 7.5 million tons of thrust hoisting the rocket into space. Collins, however, nervously monitored the jiggles produced as the rocket pushed through its first few feet in altitude. 

The rocket's motors were carefully steering to avoid a nearby launch tower, he recalled in a televised interview.

Related: Apollo 11 at 50: A Complete Guide to the Historic Moon Landing

Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins (right) speaks with Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana at NASA's historic Launch Complex 39A, on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. (Image credit: Frank Michaux/NASA)

"As you ascend — slowly and majestically — inside you feel different jiggling, left and right," said Collins, sitting with KSC director (and former space shuttle astronaut) Bob Cabana nearby the Floridian pad that brought Apollo 11 into space. "You're not sure if your jiggles are as big as you should be, and how close they put you to that launch umbilical tower — which you do not want to hit at that moment."

Even after making it safely into space, the work never stopped. Collins said his crew's life for several days was not accomplishing each finished step, but preparing to get to the next one — from Earth orbit to lunar orbit to landing to return to Earth. Further, his crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and himself were well-aware that millions were watching their every move during their journey.

"We felt the weight of the world on our shoulders. We knew that everyone would be looking at us, friend or foe, and we wanted to do the best we possibly could, and put our best foot forward. That required a great deal of work on our part, but not too much time left over for the things we more enjoyed," he said.

'I trusted my surroundings'

Michael Collins trains in the command module simulator at Kennedy Space Center on June 19, 1969. (Image credit: NASA)

Collins, now 88 years old, is only one of two surviving members of the Apollo 11 crew — Armstrong died of natural causes in 2012, at age 82. Sitting back in a lawn chair beside Cabana, Collins carefully held the heavy microphone for the broadcast against his chest, presumably to lessen the weight a little. While Collins is well into his ninth decade, however, his memories of that mission 50 years ago remain sharp.

For example, Cabana asked Collins a recurring question — whether Collins felt lonely while orbiting solo around the moon while his crewmates worked on the surface — and Collins had a quick retort: "I was always asked, wasn't I the loneliest person in the whole lonely history of the whole lonely solar system when I was all by myself in that lonely orbit — and the answer was no!"

Collins' reasoning was simple. As a pilot, he was used to working alone in an aircraft. And by aircraft standards, the Apollo 11 command module "Columbia" was a luxury hotel. It had hot coffee, music and plenty of room to stretch out without two crewmates crowding the space. "I trusted my surroundings. I was very happy to be where I was and to see this complicated mission unfold," Collins said.

So happy was Collins in his spot in history that he turned down a chance to walk on the moon three years later, as commander of Apollo 17 (a crew that was ultimately led by Eugene Cernan.) 

"That would be another three years," Collins said, meaning that he'd remain training at NASA between 1969 and 1972 in support of the Apollo 17 mission and of other missions. He described that training as "three years living in dingy hotels and strange places trying to learn new things — once again — and I didn't find that too rosy a future." 

Personal considerations also weighed on him. "The other thing was [that] I was going to be separated from my family, with young children and a wife who had been wonderful about supporting me all the way through, including all the way up and through Apollo 11. I'd be asking her to go through that rigmarole one more time."

Collins penned a 1974 memoir of his life and historical mission in "Carrying the Fire," and said that if he were to do it again, he would love to add a section on where to go next in space. In his view, as much as he enjoys NASA's new "Artemis" (twin of Apollo) name for the moon missions, he'd prefer a Mars venture. 

Armstrong, however, wanted to do more moon missions before moving on to the Red Planet, Collins said, and called Armstrong the better engineer of the two men. "[He] thought there were gaps in our knowledge, and we could fill those chinks with a return to the moon, and that would assist us in a return to Mars," he said.

Memories on the International Space Station

While Collins was skeptical about returning to the moon, two American astronauts on the International Space Station said the launch anniversary has even more resonance today as NASA aims to bring astronauts to the surface by 2024.

In a video posted on Twitter, astronaut Nick Hague said the nearly two decades of work on the orbiting laboratory is preparing astronauts to set foot on other worlds, through learning about the human body and science. "We are in that time again," he said of space's ability to inspire, "as we approach the 20th anniversary of a permanent presence on the International Space Station, working hard to return humans to the moon for the Artemis program."

His space station crewmate, NASA astronaut Christina Koch, added, "The legacy of the Apollo program is enduring, and will guide us during our endeavors in space."

Neither astronaut was alive when the moon landings happened (Hague is 43 and Koch is 40), but in an interview Monday (July 15) with the Today Show, they said they still feel connected to the workers of the Apollo program — including the extensive ground teams that supported the astronauts.

Hague said that moments before the interview, he spent some time in the Cupola observatory — a 360-view window on the space station — and watched the moon rise above the Earth. "It makes me feel connected to the legacy of successful exploration the first pioneers the trail that they blazed," he said.

Koch added that more than 400,000 workers that supported the program showed her the value of working towards a big goal. "When we come together, we accomplish great things. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the reward."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace