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Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins

Carrying the Fire

by Michael Collins

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“There seem to be two moons now, the one I see in my back yard and the one I remember from up close. Intellectually, I know they are one and the same but emotionally they are separate entities. The small moon, the one I have known all my life, remains unchanged, except that I now know it is three days away.”

Michael Collins’ memoir, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys is an incredibly fitting title. Here Mike takes us all the way from his test pilot days to his orbital time in Gemini 10 and then to his piloting of Apollo 11 where his job was to essentially drop the kids (Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong) off on the moon and pick them up later when they were through. Whether he’s writing about his test pilot days, his astronaut training days, or his days on Gemini 10 or Apollo 11, Collins doesn’t spare any details. Sometimes the details are funny (one man wrote a letter to the Apollo 11 crew to watch out for the giant ant hills on the moon – he could tell them where they were – for a fee); sometimes they are crude (how do astronauts do that in space anyway?) and sometimes they are incredibly heartbreaking such as the loss of three astronauts in the on-the-ground fire in Apollo 1. This book is only the second one I’ve read on the space program (the first one being Lost Moon) and I learned a lot from it.

Training to be an astronaut was no easy thing. Up and coming astronauts had to spend 240 hours studying various things such as astronomy, aerodynamics, and flight mechanics. A lot of time was spent studying geology since the astronauts were expected to bring back a pretty sizeable haul of moon rocks. Since it was predicted that if a rocket was going to fall back to Earth it would crash near the equator, the astronauts-in-training had to complete a few days of learning how to survive in the desert and the jungle. Survival training included some classroom time plus a survival manual bible, “Air Force Manual 64-5’s, entitled Survival,” with its sage advice for the new jungle dweller: “ ‘Dangerous beasts – tigers, rhinoceros, elephants – are rarely seen and best left alone.’ I’ll say!”

Not only do we get to fly shot-gun with Mike on his two space flights, he also takes us with him through all those hours upon hours in simulators where he would try to solve every possible scenario the engineers could throw at him. The questions of “what if?” “what do we do if?” and “how do we deal with THAT?” were inexhaustible and it required a gigantic team of all kinds of experts to brainstorm all the contingencies. Bad enough to have to spend so much time getting ready for the space flight itself, but there was PR to tend to as well. A few months before the Apollo 11 flight, an exhausted Collins went straight from simulator exercises to flying himself to some PR event . On the way back home he realizes he has become disoriented: “With a jolt I realized it had been a long day and I was making mistakes no alert air cadet would; this guy who couldn’t tell Washington from Baltimore was within a few months of navigating to the moon and back.” He did manage to successfully navigate back home and then eventually (thankfully!) from Earth to moon and back. He probably occupies a unqiue place in the universe as the one and only person to be separated, quite literally, from the entire world: “… I disappear behind the moon. … 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 remarked to my son the other day that the closer I got to the end of this book – with the astronauts getting closer and closer to actually landing on the moon - the longer the book seemed to get. That’s when I realized I was having a little-kid-like “Are we there yet?” moment! As far as adventure goes, I don’t think you can beat going to the moon.

Collins would disagree with me. In the new 1989 version there is a new preface written by Collins: "Today I look back on the moon not so much as a place, but a direction.” He talks at some length about his fascination with Mars and his belief that we need to explore it. “… I don’t think we should establish a time-table for Mars, although it seems to me a human landing could come in the first decade of the twenty-first century…." He also takes a moment to address the 1986 Challenger explosion, defend the aerospace industry, and laments the fact that the space program doesn’t enjoy the “spirit, the mood, the vitality of Apollo” that it once had.
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5 vote avidmom | Sep 19, 2012 |
Michael Collins' 1974 memoir of his career as a test pilot and astronaut, including, of course, his historic journey aboard Apollo 11. I've read a zillion different accounts of this period in the American space program now, and somehow I never, ever get tired of them. Each one seems to offer some new perspective or to tell me a few things I didn't already know, and this book is emphatically no exception. Collins' account is very detailed, with day-by-day and sometimes even hour-by-hour descriptions of his activities on his Gemini and Apollo flights, including his own thoughts and reflections and opinions. Turns out, in addition to all his other accomplishments, he's also a pretty good writer. He manages to be very specific and clear about the more technical aspects of the job without either dumbing things down or making the readers' eyes glaze over with facts and figures and acronyms. (Well, except when he's deliberately demonstrating how this stuff can make your eyes glaze over, anyway!) He also possesses a terrific sense of humor, with lots of self-deprecating jokes and amusing asides and entertainingly forthright commentary making this a surprisingly fun read. And his description of his trip to the moon is downright thrilling. Mind you, I always find this particular subject thrilling, but there's nothing quite like a firsthand account. Although ironically, unlike the rest of the species, Collins didn't get to experience humanity's first steps on the moon as they happened; he was on the far side of the moon at the time, and out of communications range.

I think I'd call this one a must-read for the true space enthusiast. Hell, it's unforgivable that it's taken me this long to get around to reading it, especially considering how long it's been sitting on my shelves. ( )
2 vote bragan | Jul 31, 2012 |
Simply magnificent! As I've spent the last few days tearing through this engrossing book, I've been mindful of how I might be able to review it once I'd reached its end. Now that I have done so I find that I don't really know quite how to express what it is about Michael Collins' writing that moved me so much - except that I know this is most definitely one of the best memoirs I've ever read. It is truly a one-off, as the events it describes are so unique (most obviously the historic Apollo 11 mission) that they could only have been written by one of the members of 1960s NASA space program who was actually 'there'.

Collins' writing is very laid back and as informal as it is informative. I rarely read books (for pleasure at least) with quite so much scientific content: rocket propulsion, trajectories, inter-planetary navigation, and so forth, but he puts these topics into words that I found no problem in understanding. Not that these subjects really dominate the narrative - his tale is told in a very personal and humourous style. For an astronaut (& fighter pilot for that matter!) Collins is incredibly humble and self-effacing - he repeatedly reminds the reader of how poor a mechanic he is and how lazy he can be...

The early chapters retell his experiences as a USAF test pilot while in the background NASA's manned space program is underway. After some early setbacks he is eventually accepted into the astronaut staff at NASA in Houston, and begins the arduous training for the Gemini program. Amidst tales of geological field trips and survival training in inhospitable desert or jungle environments (in the event of any future re-entry going awry), and endless sickness inducing zero gravity dives, he gives a great sense to the day to day existence of an astronaut-in-waiting. As enjoyable as these pages are, the reader knows - as does the author of course - that it is all building up to the momentous day when he will finally sit at the 'tip of the pencil on the launch-pad' at Cape Kennedy on his way into space.

The Gemini 10 mission he flies along with John Young is covered in every breathtaking detail, none more so than Collins' 2 EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activity - spacewalks to you and I). In the first, as he was taking star readings with his sextant whilst standing up in the hatch - head and shoulders out 'there' in space - he writes that he felt at that moment "like a Roman god riding the skies in his chariot". The 2nd EVA, where he has to leave the Gemini altogether and cross the void to reach the adjacent Agena craft (sent up previously specifically for this planned rendezvous), for the purposes of removing and replacing an experiment installed on its outside, is altogether more terrifying. He finds himself grappling with zero gravity while attempting to 'climb' aboard the rear end of a craft patently not designed for such an activity (there were no foot or handholds for his convenience) in bulky spacesuit complete with cumbersome gloves and yards of entangling umbilical line... There is no 'up' and there is no 'down' - talk about vertigo! All this while simultaneously reminding the Gemini pilot Young not to use whichever thruster may happen to be nearest to burning through either said umbilical lines or indeed Collins himself! It's edge of your seat stuff.

The final third of this terrific book covers the famous Apollo 11 mission to the moon itself. The quirks of fate that led him to this moment are not lost on Collins as he writes of the medical problem which was discovered while he was due to be assigned to the Apollo 8 mission. His flight status of 'grounded' for several months inadvertently leads to his later inclusion on Apollo 11.

I won't retell all that happens, but the moments when he is truly as alone as any human being has ever been - Charles Lindbergh's later congratulatory letter tells of relating to his experience more so than Armstrong's or Aldrin's - in lunar orbit while the landing module 'Eagle' is away on the Moon's surface are some truly gripping passages of tension. That said, the whole exciting tale is really page turning stuff.

The final chapters contain Collins' thoughts on space travel in general (written in 1973) and where it might be headed. As well as his thoughts on humanity's attitudes to our 'blue and white planet', he poignantly expresses with one word above all how he sees Planet Earth now that he has seen the 'world in a window' - fragile.

An excellent read and one which I heartily recommend to all. ( )
1 vote Polaris- | Sep 4, 2011 |
This book is really two. The first part is a memoir of Collins participation in the space race, while the second part, under the title "epilog" is Collin's opinion of where humans are going with respect to space knowledge and exploration. I think the second part is the more interesting and important of the two. Because it was written bifore the International Space Station was built, it did not get the correct outcome of that program. That program degenerated into covering pottie repair with a total disinterest by the public of any exploration value or stepping stone function. Consequently that space station may not have contributed to Collin's conclusion of mankind being basically pioneering in nature and eventually expanding out of our earth cradle.

In the first part of the book, there is good insight on the personalities of the astronauts and of the Nasa Gemini and Apollo management style.

Having worked with professional astronomers, I feel the same as Collins that the general public has not gotten the message that the earth is not the center of the solar system, galaxy, or anything else and that the earth is round and whole so that pollution in one area truly degrades quality of life for all, not just locally where it is geneerated.

Collin's epilog is worth reading by all. Since he has witnessed the big picture of the earth in its locale, his opinions speak from knowledge and experience. ( )
  billsearth | Jan 23, 2011 |
Like Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins owes his place in the history books to misfortune - in this case, his own. He had been initially assigned to the crew of Apollo 8, but a cervical disc herniation requiring surgery resulted in him being dropped from flight status. After he had recovered, he was assigned to Apollo 11. If it had not been for his back problem, it's likely Apollo 8 would have been his one and only Apollo flight - he was keen to retire from NASA after successful completion.

Which is a shame. Collins was command module pilot for Apollo 11, and remained in orbit about the Moon in Command Module Columbia. Of all the Apollo astronauts, Collins would probably have best described in prose what it was like to actually walk on the Moon. If he had not left NASA after Apollo 11, the normal rotation schedule would probably have seen him commanding Apollo 17... and so landing on the lunar surface. And then he would have been able to write about it.

See the rest of the review at http://spacebookspace.blogspot.com/2009/07/carrying-fire-michael-collins.html ( )
  iansales | Jul 18, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 081541028X, Paperback)

NASA astronaut Michael Collins trained as an experimental test pilot before venturing into space as a vital member of the Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 missions. In Carrying the Fire, his account of his voyages into space and the years of training that led up to them, Collins reveals the human tensions, the physical realities, and the personal emotions surrounding the early years of the space race.

Collins provides readers with an insider's view of the space program and conveys the excitement and wonder of his journey to the moon. As skilled at writing as he is at piloting a spacecraft, Collins explains the clash of personalities at NASA and technical aspects of flight with clear, engaging prose, withholding nothing in his candid assessments of fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Buzz Aldrin, and officials within NASA.

A fascinating memoir of mankind's greatest journey told in familiar, human terms, Carrying the Fire is by turns thrilling, humorous, and thought-provoking, a unique work by a remarkable man.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:45 -0400)

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