Tom Wolfe talked about how the Mercury astronauts had “that righteous stuff.” The swagger of Al Shepherd, Deke Slayton, and even straight arrow John Glenn are legendary. Then came the New Nine, or the first astronauts recruited specifically for the Gemini program. Half of those were test pilots who tried for the Mercury Seven. But what of the Original Fourteen, the first round of astronauts recruited for the Apollo program?
Mike Collins was one of them, and he piloted the command module on Apollo 11. Collins is decidedly not cocky as shown in his memoir, Carrying the Fire. The title is a reference to the huge amount of flame and smoke put out by the powerful Saturn V rocket. The lunar astronauts were literally, as Collins put it, carrying the fire into space.
Collins was a test pilot like most of the early astronauts, but he was hardly the type that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Right Stuff. He knew a thing or two about how aircraft worked and was probably a better stick-and-rudder man than even Neil Armstrong. But he is extremely self-deprecating about his career as an astronaut. He did not expect to fly his sole Gemini flight with John Young, let alone go on Apollo 11. In fact, Collins was slated to be the command module pilot for Apollo 8. Only a spinal problem sidelined him for a year.
Collins gives a matter-of-fact account of what it is like to fly in a spacecraft (Hint: It gets smelly really fast, or did before the shuttle made the space toilet a thing.) and walk in space (Not easy, and according to shuttle and ISS astronauts, only getting harder as technology advances.) But what really struck me about this memoir is the intro by Charles Lindbergh, who met with the Apollo 11 astronauts before and after their moon flight. Lindbergh compares the first lunar landing to his flight across the Atlantic. Only 42 years before, flying solo across the Atlantic from New York to Paris was considered dangerous. No navigation infrastructure existed, and radio had barely become a thing, but not radar. And Lindbergh’s flight was less than 20 years removed from the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk.
Carrying the Fire is not a philosophical book. It’s about a regular guy who got to fly airplanes for a living and took that job to the moon. Even Deke Slayton, often called “Father Deke” by the other astronauts, shows a few warts in this one. But Collins genuinely admires his fellow Apollo 11 travelers, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. He laments what fame did to Aldrin (ironically now the best spokesman for the space program) and is not surprised by Armstrong’s almost hermit-like existence after Apollo. He doesn’t deny he and the others did something extraordinary. Only a fool would. But he also reminds us that it is still a job, and the crew of Apollo 11 did that job.