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Astronaut Mike Collins -- The Moon before the Beach

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this week most of us recall Neil Armstrong's memorable words as he stepped onto the Moon's surface: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It had been a long and suspenseful wait for that historic moment. Six hours earlier, Eagle, the lunar module had touched down on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility. All of us watching expected the astronauts to climb right out and get started on their tasks. Little did we realize that it would take time to complete the arduous preparations before they could venture into a hostile atmosphere of 200 degree temperatures totally devoid of oxygen.   


   Some of us cannot recall that, 19-minutes after Armstrong's historic steps, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the second person on the Moon or that Michael "Mike" Collins was the pilot of Columbia, the mother space vehicle or command module, that from its position hovering 60 miles above the moon dispatched the lunar module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin to its landing point.


   Those of us who witnessed it on our black and white television sets on Sunday evening, July 20, 1969, remember where we were and who we were with. My wife, Mary-Margaret, and I were in our Capitol Hill townhouse with a guest, Peter Aslanides, a friend from Georgetown Law School.


   Like many people, beginning with Apollo 11's launch four days earlier, we were literally riveted in place watching it all take place on CBS as the beloved and believable commentator and space enthusiast, Walter Cronkite, with assistance from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) experts, narrated and explained in a dramatic fashion the intricate maneuvers taking place before our eyes.


   The universe was seemingly smaller at that moment. It was at the height of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Nixon-Agnew era. America, much as it is now, was a divided country, but this event brought the nation together. We shared a sense of national pride equal to that felt at the end of World War II. Those of us in America and throughout the world with knowledge of this momentous event went to sleep that night with a feeling of optimism that seemingly anything was achievable.


   The July 14, 2019 edition of The New York Times carried a revealing interview with Collins, now 88, in which he was asked what he would have done if he was unable to bring Armstrong and Aldrin home. "I was not going to commit suicide," Collins responded. "I was coming home by myself. And they knew that, I didn't have to discuss it with them, and they didn't have to discuss it with me. But it would not have been a good trip home." That same edition of The Times reprinted a statement prepared by William Safire for President Nixon to deliver in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin did not return.


   Collins also revealed in that interview he had earlier informed a NASA official that: "If everything goes exactly as planned, I'm out of here." It did go as planned, and he was out of there. Much to my amazement, days following the end of the astronauts three week quarantine as Mary-Margaret and I arrived at our Delaware beach house there was Mike Collins organizing his children and their beach gear outside of the house adjoining ours. Talk about a small world. We were almost as gob-smacked as we were when we watched the Moon landing. I also was impressed that this guy had enough faith and confidence in what NASA and its contractors had patched together to get  him to the Moon and back that he had rented a beach house for a prime week in August requiring a sizeable and non-refundable deposit. 


   We introduced ourselves and welcomed him back to earth. He laughed and thanked us. He asked us about the rules of Atlantic Watergate, our seaside development, places to eat, and things the children could do. His father, a retired Army general, had been posted in Washington at times, and Mike had attended the Saint Albans School in Washington. Though familiar with the area, he was not up-to-date on what to do and where to go. After we filled him in, he headed for the beach carrying some of his children's gear along with a shopping bag full of books.


   We had our frisky and unpredictable Old English Sheepdog, Tory, with us, and within the hour we were down at the beach. Tory loved to play in the surf, charging at the incoming waves, and jumping over them just as they crested. When Tory had enough, we anchored him with heavy rope tied to a steel stake with discs screwed deep into the sand to prevent him from running after other dogs and/or people. Collins was close by with a cautious eye on Tory as he rapidly read through a stack of paper-back books that he used to prop up his head in the sand. Everyone on the beach knew who he was, but for the entire week, people kept their distance, as they did with Tory, giving Mike and his family all the space they needed to enjoy their time together.


   I had talked to Collins a few times that week. He was at West Point during its football glory days that were abruptly ended during a 1951 cheating scandal. In my formative years, I had been an avid Army football fan. That scandal jolted my faith in the honor system at that venerable institution. We talked about the cheating scandal, and he let me know that it had also rocked his morale and that of his fellow cadets. He was a cool guy, quiet and laid back with a great sense of humor. One day, he and his children joined another family on a fishing boat. They caught quite a few Bluefish and Mike gave me a large one that I grilled that night.


   I saw Collins a few times in the years to follow when he was an Assistant Secretary of State and later when he headed up the Air and Space Museum. We talked about that enjoyable week at the beach, one in which he said that he and his wife, Pat, had begun to map out some of their future plans.


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