Since the Apollo 11 moon landing; 50 years ago, when the historic landing comes up in conversation the first names that pop up are those of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldin.
Armstrong, a Navy test pilot, was the first man to walk on the moon, and Aldrin, a Korean War fighter pilot, would follow in Armstrong's footsteps. However, the third man on Apollo 11, Michael Collins, an Air Force test pilot, was piloting the command module orbiting the moon as Armstrong and Aldrin were down on the surface.
According to a C-SPAN/Ipsos poll taken ahead of the 50th anniversary, when asked how familiar Americans are with individuals associated with the U.S. space program today, three names top the list: Armstrong with 83 %, Aldrin at 68% and in third place SpaceX CEO Elon Musk with 57%. Collins didn’t make the top 10 names most associate with U.S. space exploration.
Collins was selected among NASA's third group of astronauts in 1963. During his astronaut career, he would log more than 260 hours in space between two spaceflights. Prior to Apollo 11, Collins piloted the three-day Gemini 10 mission in 1966 and became the nation's third space walker.
While many people think Collins missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the Apollo 11 astronaut says he has no regrets.
"The fact that I did not walk on the moon, to me, was really kind of superficial,” Collins said. “I felt that I was a full third partner in the venture."
The mission of Apollo 11 was clear: to complete President John F. Kennedy's goal he had set for the U.S. space program.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” Kennedy said May 25, 1961.
Eight years after Kennedy's remarks to Congress, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the moon.
“That was a wonderfully simplistic mandate,” Collins said. “That helped us a lot in our preparations for going to the moon. We knew exactly what we were supposed to do."
For Collins that meant piloting the Columbia command module after separating from the final stage of the Saturn V rocket, and then the complex task of turning Columbia around to dock with the lunar landing module.
Those important steps set the stage for the most famous touchdown in space history.
Collins said Apollo 11 could only happen if everything went according to plan.
“The daisy chain, that's what worried me. The idea that in order to have a successful moon landing, you had to have a series of relatively minor events, each one of which was successful,” Collins said. “If one of them was unsuccessful, the whole scheme went down the drain."
As Armstrong and Aldrin worked on the surface, Collins spent the next 21 1/2 hours in solitude, orbiting the moon, worried he may not reunite with his colleagues. One thing he was not bothered by was the fact that he was alone 238,900 miles from home.
“I was asked after the flight, 'Weren't you terribly lonely? The loneliest man in this whole lonely mission in the lonely history of this lonely planet? Weren't you lonely?' I said no, not at all, I was happy," Collins said
Reliving the Saturn V launch 50 years later
On July 16, Collins watched the CBS News reenactment of the 1969 launch from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A.
"The feeling on board Saturn V after engine ignition is quite different than what you might imagine," Collins said after watching the archive launch video. "If you watch it from a distance ... you're quite aware of the gigantic power it is producing 7.5 million pounds of thrust."
However, Collins said he and his fellow Apollo 11 crew experienced something totally unknown to most.
LIVE NOW: Tune in to hear from #Apollo11 astronaut Michael Collins as we count down to the exact moment when three humans lifted off from @NASAKennedy's Launch Pad 39A on our #Apollo50th journey to walk on the Moon: https://t.co/oAs1n8DQoc— NASA (@NASA) July 16, 2019
"Inside, it's a different situation," Collins said. "Inside that you're not worried about your power so much as you're worried about your steering."
"As you ascend very slowly, majestically inside, it's a different situation, you feel jiggling left to right. And you're not quite sure whether those jiggles are as big or small as they should be, or how much closer they're going to put you to that launch umbilical tower, which you do not very much want to hit right that moment. So it's a totally different feeling at liftoff. The nervous novice driving a wide vehicle down a narrow alley."
On the Artemis program and Mars
A half a century later, as NASA prepares to return humans to the moon, Collins says that should serve as a stepping stone to what he believes should be the main focus: Mars.
Collins supports NASA naming its new moon program Artemis and loves the fact that she is Apollo's sister. He's also excited to see the first woman go to the moon.
"More important than the name. It's a wonderful concept," Collins said. "I think women can do anything that men can do in space, perhaps they can do it better."
However, if it were up to the former Apollo 11 astronaut, NASA would be focused on Mars first. Collins said the current generation needs a driving force like the Apollo program had with Kennedy's moonshot speech.
"I don't want to go back to the moon, I want to go direct to Mars. I call it the 'JFK Mars express,'" Collins said. "John F. Kennedy gave us the 'Apollo express,' and that was a wonderful --a masterpiece of understatement of succinct instruction-- what Kennedy said helped us so much in our preparation for the first lunar landing."
“I’d like to transfer that spirit from from where we are to where we might go,” Collins said. “And I would propose going direct to Mars. Under what I would call the ‘JFK Mars express.’”