Wednesday 21 August 2019

Apollo 11's Irish-American takes centre stage 50 years after launch to the moon

Welcome back: Michael Collins with Kennedy Space Centre director Bob Cabana. Photo: AP
Welcome back: Michael Collins with Kennedy Space Centre director Bob Cabana. Photo: AP

Marcia Dunn

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins yesterday returned to the exact spot from which he flew to the moon 50 years ago with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Mr Collins had the spotlight to himself this time - Mr Armstrong died seven years ago and Mr Aldrin cancelled.

Mr Collins said he wished his two moonwalking colleagues could have shared the moment at Kennedy Space Centre's launch complex 39A, the departure point for the first moon landing.

"Wonderful feeling to be back," the 88-year-old command module pilot said.

"There's a difference this time. I want to turn and ask Neil a question and maybe tell Buzz Aldrin something, and of course, I'm here by myself."

Mr Collins's grandfather emigrated from Dunmanway, Co Cork, in the early 1860s to join the rest of the family in Cincinnati, Ohio.

At Nasa's invitation, Mr Collins marked the precise moment - 9.32am on July 16, 1969 - that the Saturn V rocket blasted off. He was seated at the base of the pad alongside the centre's director, Bob Cabana, a former space shuttle commander.

Mr Collins recalled the tension surrounding the crew that day.

"Apollo 11 was serious business. We, crew, 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," he said.

Collins remained in lunar orbit, tending to Columbia, the mother ship, while Armstrong and Aldrin landed in the Eagle on July 20, 1969, and spent two-and-a-half hours walking the lunar surface.

A reunion at the Kennedy firing room by past and present launch controllers, along with Mr Collins's return, began a range of celebrations marking each day of Apollo 11's eight-day voyage.

At the Air and Space Museum in Washington, the spacesuit Mr Armstrong wore went back on display in mint condition, complete with lunar dust left on the suit's knees, thighs and elbows.

In Huntsville, Alabama, where the Saturn V was developed, thousands of model rockets were launched simultaneously, commemorating the moment the Apollo 11 crew blasted off for the moon. Hundreds of youngsters attending Space Camp counted down and cheered as the rockets created a grey cloud, at least for a few moments, in the sky.

Back at Kennedy, Mr Cabana turned the conversation to Nasa's next moonshot programme, Artemis, named after the twin sister of Greek mythology's Apollo. It seeks to put the first woman and next man on the lunar surface - the moon's south pole - by 2024.

Mr Collins said he likes the name Artemis and, even more, likes the concept behind it. He pointed out Mr Armstrong was among those who believed returning to the moon "would assist us mightily in our attempt to go to Mars".

Irish Independent

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