Dear Columbia: Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins says thanks

The mission's command module pilot pays tribute to the spacecraft that kept him company on the moon's far side.

This essay is an entry in our "Dear Spacecraft" series, where we ask writers, scientists, and astronomy enthusiasts to share why they feel personally connected to robotic space explorers.

DEAR APOLLO 11 Command Module,

May I still call you Columbia? I know you are still travelling, visiting museums now instead of zooming off to strange places, but before you get too complacent, I want to remind you of your humble origin. You were born in 1966 in Downey, California, and there I christened you. Gumdrop, one of your predecessors was called, but I bypassed your awkward, squashed-mushroom geometry and looked to your future, bobbing gracefully on the Pacific swells: indeed Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.

The command module Columbia was the living quarters for Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins during most of 1969's Apollo 11 mission. PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM

The interior space—about as roomy as a large automobile—served as the main quarters for the astronauts, a place for working and living. PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM

How well I remember nursing you along the assembly line, not an easy process as we laboured past midnight through one arduous test after another to validate your credentials. I was proud of you and eager to climb on board, as we made frequent visits to Launch Pad 39A, Gateway to the Moon.

On the Big Day, with 3.4 million kilograms of thrust churning away beneath us, I feared for your fragility. But strong you were; you didn’t even pop a circuit breaker. You seemed to like leaving Earth better than sitting on the launch pad and were even smoother in space (well, except for Fuel Cell #3, but I did not consider it a failure, but simply a free spirit not to be regimented like #1 and #2).

Now that I have gotten rid of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and sent them to frolic on the surface 96km below, the two of us can finally be alone. Please, another black coffee while I finish this tube of my favorite, the cream-of-chicken soup. And the thermostat, 24°C. Good, very comfy here.

For whatever reason, perhaps some very slow news days, the press has taken to announcing that here I am, the loneliest man in the whole lonely universe, with an orbit so lonely that my loneliness exceeds that of all lonely souls before me. Ridiculous. How could I be lonely? You have me and I have you (plus the fuel cell), and that view out the window.

I think I’ll take a photograph of what truly does seem lonely, the tiny Earth. But wait. Bill Anders has already taken that picture on Apollo 8, so no point in wasting film on a duplicate.

Instead, I think in preparation for our return to Earth, I should commemorate your contribution, Columbia: a portrait, or some kind of artistic acknowledgement, perhaps a golden sheen on your heat shield, or nymphs dancing, or a moon rock embedded with a star sapphire. Not having any of those, here goes with my trusty old ballpoint pen:

Spacecraft 107, alias Apollo 11, alias “Columbia,” the finest ship to come down the line, God bless her. Michael Collins, CMP.

While aboard the U.S.S. Hornet following Columbia's splashdown on July 24, 1969, astronaut Michael Collins crawled back into the command module and wrote this inscription on one of the equipment bay panels. PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM

Michael Collins flew in both the Gemini 10 and the Apollo 11 space missions in the 1960s. After retiring from NASA in 1970, he became director of the National Air and Space Museum until 1978, when he became undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. From 1982 to 2006, he served on the National Geographic Society's board of trustees. He currently lives in South Florida.

MISSION TO THE MOON - Watch back-to-back documentaries from 1.30pm AEST on Saturday July 20 on National Geographic.

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