We’re so accustomed to hyperbole that it can be difficult to recognise the truth in grand statements. When Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon in the July of 1969, he described it as being a giant leap for mankind. He wasn’t exaggerating: of all of the things that took place during the terrible, wondrous, noisy twentieth century, humanity’s audacious first stride into the universe is the one most likely to be remembered a thousand years from now. Yet as significant as the first moon landing was, its importance can be equally illuminated by remembering an event that was happening at the exact same moment.
During the 21 hours that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent on the Sea of Tranquillity, Apollo 11’s third crew member Michael Collins remained in the Command Module, Columbia, as it orbited the moon awaiting their return. Left behind whilst his colleagues made history, Collins checked his instruments, spoke to NASA every now and then, and stared out at a place where he himself would never set foot. Every 47 minutes his orbit would take him around the moon’s dark side, a quarter of a million miles from his home, and completely out of contact with anyone at all. Upon Columbia’s first return from radio silence, Mission Control observed, “Not since Adam has any human known such solitude.“
In interviews, Collins is ambivalent on his feelings while in isolation, but during one of those stretches on the dark side of the moon he wrote in his diary: “I am alone, now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it.”
The idea of Collins’ long, long wait resonates because it reinforces our feelings about exploration, and explains a little about why we romanticise it. Man has always venerated explorers, not only because they take risks to further human knowledge, but also because we live vicariously through them.
For the explorers, the prize for their boldness isn’t just in the objects or knowledge that they bring back, nor any rewards or celebration for their trials, but rather the opportunity to see something that no one has ever seen before. The notion is an enchanting one, and is amongst the reasons why people have climbed mountains, crossed oceans and boarded rocket ships.
Exploration is a collective triumph, of course. While Armstrong and Aldrin were bouncing around on the moon and Collins was pensively orbiting it, hundreds of scientists and engineers were assisting them back home. But the crew of Apollo 11 were the ones who put themselves in danger. Like anything difficult or traumatic, the further we get away from it, the harder the risks are to appreciate: Apollo 1 didn’t even leave the ground, its crewmen burning alive in their spacesuits, and it was rumoured for years that cosmonauts had been sent to space and died in the period before Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight.
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins left Earth in the knowledge that there was a speech already drafted for the President to read in the event of their deaths, and yet they went anyway. Even if they were merely part of the machine of scientific discovery, they were still the frail humans who took that step into the unknown.
Armstrong differentiated between his small step as a man and mankind’s giant leap, but it’s through the former that we experience the latter. Discovery is a shared human endeavour, yes, but individuals become the focal point because that’s how we understand the world. The explorers themselves exist as a symbol in which we invest our hope and pride, which is why the thought of Collins’ lonesome 21 hours speaks to us.
Like Armstrong and Aldrin, Collins travelled to somewhere never before reached by man, but wasn’t able to experience it; he climbed a mountain and was unable to look out at the summit. More so than his crewmates, he embodies the loneliness of discovery. Without a tangible moment of achievement, he allows us to appreciate the personal sacrifices that exploration demands of its pursuers. Reaching a new shore or ascending a new peak is just one moment: what comes before is frequently hardship, boredom and life-threatening danger. To reach somewhere new is to be alone, and there’s something both inspiring and heart-rending about that. While it’s true that no human had known such solitude as Michael Collins, his solitude is in itself its own kind of discovery.