Reissued with a new preface by the author on the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 journey to the moon
The years that have passed since Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins piloted the Apollo 11 spacecraft to the moon in July 1969 have done nothing to alter the fundamental wonder of the event: man reaching the moon remains one of the great events—technical and spiritual—of our lifetime.
In Carrying the Fire, Collins conveys, in a very personal way, the drama, beauty, and humor of that adventure. He also traces his development from his first flight experiences in the air force, through his days as a test pilot, to his Apollo 11 space walk, presenting an evocative picture of the joys of flight as well as a new perspective on time, light, and movement from someone who has seen the fragile earth from the other side of the moon.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Astronaut Michael Collins is one of 24 people who have flown to the moon. He flew in both the Gemini 10 space mission in 1966 and Apollo 11 lunar mission in 1969. He currently lives in South Florida.
Read an Excerpt
There are only two ways of learning to ride a fractious horse; one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast awhile, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safer, but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.
— Wilbur Wright, 1901
I suppose Russia must test new airplanes over the Pripet Marshes, or Siberia, or wherever desolation dictates. In this country, it is Edwards Air Force Base, California — Mojave Desert country, in a vortex of the Antelope Valley wind tunnel, one hundred miles north of Los Angeles. Although I had flown over the area many times before, when I first approached Edwards on the ground I couldn't believe it. I had left the tinsel-shiny, neon-bedecked high rollers of Las Vegas a few hours before, ricocheting down the highway in an overheated 1958 Chevy station wagon, seeking Valhalla or Mecca, or at least an opportunity to fight for admission into the arcane world of high-speed flight testing. For Edwards was all these things and I had been accepted as a member of Class 60-C at the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School, along with thirteen other exalted ones, mostly Americans (one Italian, one Dane, one Japanese), mostly hyperthyroid, superachieving first sons of superachievers. To this day, I am impressed by this group; I love them, they leer at me from my study wall. One of them has walked on the moon, two have circled it; two — two of the best — are dead.
But in the spring of 1960 I knew only that a nest had to be prepared for wife and infant daughter, arrangements had to be made, housing procured, forms signed, and the other necessary impedimenta gotten out of the way so that the decks would be cleared for the real action to follow.
Vaunted Edwards, the Air Force Flight Test Center, the big time at last! At least it was big, with a dry lake twenty-five miles long serving as a super runway, an earth mother for pilots in distress, for those who must land their aircraft immediately no matter what.
It was also dry and hot and windy and isolated, and not at all what a proper Bostonian — my wife — would expect as a nursery for her firstborn. I knew this, and winced, but I also knew that she would prevail, and neither Joshua tree nor rattlesnake nor sandstorm would dim her New England resolve, nor her ability not only to make it but to change it! After all, in a historic sense, it was a place for upstarts. Recorded history of the area spans only a few more years than does the airplane itself.
No matter how advanced the technology or sophisticated the flying machine, the lake still calls the tune, reasserting each winter the primordial dominance of nature over puny, impatient pilots. Each spring and summer, as the lake gets drier and as more high-pressure aircraft tires abuse it, surface cracks and blemishes appear, so by late autumn the lake bed appears rough and "ruined." Then come the winter rains, sparingly, but providing enough water to allow a couple of inches to accumulate on the lake bed and to be blown back and forth by the omnipresent wind. By early spring, the newly dried surface reappears, as silky as a baby's bottom, ready to take another year's traffic smoothly and safely. Of course, in recent years concrete runways adjacent to the lake bed have made the Air Force less dependent upon this annual cycle, but it is still interesting to note that the most advanced machines, such as the X-15 rocketcraft and more recently NASA's lifting body, still use the lake bed itself, and are more dependent on nature's schedule, not man's.
I had been flying F-86 Sabrejets out of George Air Force Base in nearby Victorville a few years before, so that in the spring of 1960 I was not unfamiliar with the area. I knew that Captain Joseph McConnell, our foremost Korean War jet ace, had been killed on the lake while on temporary assignment from George Air Force Base. In 1954, I had witnessed from my cockpit the fatal dive of a supersonic F-100 fighter, and followed the lifeless body of North American test pilot George Welch to earth as his undamaged parachute slowly descended. I knew about Edwards.
I also knew that despite the desolation, the one-hundred-plus heat, the perpetual howling of the wind, this was the place. Here the very first American jet had been tested, with a make-believe wooden propeller stuck on its nose whenever it was parked, so as not to arouse suspicion; here Captain Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier on October 14, 1947; here Captain Mike Collins was going onward and upward. Ad Inexplorata, said the motto of the Flight Test Center: "Toward the Unknown." Next to the motto of the Air Rescue Service ("That Others May Live"), this one was my favorite, and I noted with approval that it was prominently plastered on buildings and flying suits alike: a futuristic, aerodynamic shape escaping from a sandy, cactus-bedecked background into a blue-black sky. On the other hand, the insignia of the test pilot school itself gave me pause. It featured a lot of blue sky, but superimposed above all was a slide rule.
I signed in somewhat pensively, was assigned a neat cinderblock house, nothing fancy but white-gloves clean, and then headed on back up the highway to Las Vegas to break the good news to Pat. "A neat place, you'll love it!" At least I hoped she would, and I would, because for the first time in my Air Force career, we were due for a long and stable assignment. God knows, Pat deserved it; in less than four years of marriage we had lived in four houses, four apartments, and what seemed like forty-four motels. For that matter, I had been moving all my life at frequent and regular intervals, with never more than four years in any one spot. My father had been a career Army officer for thirty-eight years, and in the seventeen years I had lived at home, I had seen dramatic and frequent shifts in scene, from a rooftop apartment in Rome, where I was born, to a modest old colonial house in Alexandria, Virginia, to which he retired in 1945. Along the way, the family had sampled snake-infested country life in Oklahoma, bright lights in Manhattan, as viewed from nearby Governor's Island, and — most unusual of all — a couple of years' residence in Casa Blanca, which is generally recognized as the oldest dwelling in the Western Hemisphere. Built by Ponce de Leon's nephew around 1530, this imposing old fortress overlooks the harbor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Assigned as living quarters to the commanding general of the Puerto Rican Department, as it was called in 1941, Casa Blanca was the most fascinating place I had ever seen, with seven-foot-thick outer walls, an immense ballroom, a sealed-off tunnel with a secret entrance, and a host of features not to be found in today's puny lath and plaster or dry-board construction. Even more impressive to me, as a ten-year-old, were the surrounding gardens, teeming with tropical plants and animals. I spent hours studying lizards, hermit crabs, turtles, and tiny tropical fish, and getting acquainted with such stomachache producers as under-ripe mangoes and overripe coconuts.
In Puerto Rico, I also took my first airplane ride, in a small twin-engine amphibian, the Grumman Widgeon. The pilot even let me steer a little bit, an indignity the old Widgeon endured with grace as I jerked the nose up and down unevenly, trying to heed the pilot's advice to "keep her on the horizon." My father watched all this from the rear of the plane with obvious amusement. No pilot, he preferred horses to airplanes, but as an old polo player and horse cavalryman, he did appreciate the excitement of this swift new medium, and allowed as how the Air Corps boys did have a certain juvenile appeal. In fact, he relished telling how he had, in 1911 in the Philippines, taken his first airplane ride, in a Wright machine, sitting on the wing next to Frank Lahm, who was the second military pilot to be taught by the Wrights. Frank flew the frail craft over a forest fire, and the updraft from the heated air caused a sudden lurch, which nearly dislodged Daddy (or so he said) from his makeshift perch. I was intrigued by this story, as indeed I was by Lahm himself, whom I met years later at West Point. Quiet, dignified, without pretense or affectation, this old gentleman had lived right at the cutting edge of the advances slicing through our society in the wake of the new air technology. What changes Lahm had seen in his lifetime, and not passively from an armchair, but actively from the cockpits of a series of ever more complex and fascinating machines. I was impressed, especially when I compared this solitary old eagle to the lemming-like horde of "Follow me, men, over the hill" young Army leaders I was familiar with at West Point.
As West Point graduation approached, I had to decide whether to stick with the Army or strike out in a new direction with the recently independent Air Force (to my dad it would always be the Army Air Corps). Unlike that of many young Americans, my love affair with the airplane had been neither all-consuming nor constant. In the years between the Widgeon and meeting Frank Lahm, there had been occasional passionate flings into model airplane building, but airplanes were less a part of my young life than chess, football, or girls. Also, the airplane as a career posed practical problems. One could — 25 percent did — wash out of pilot training. One could be killed, practically as easily in peacetime as in war. Promotions were predicted, by those who kept book on such things, to come more slowly in the future Air Force than in the Army, because of past excesses on the part of the Air Force, which had caused a "hump" of young but senior officers, blocking the rapid advancement of those who followed. All these things, plus the entire thrust of the Army curriculum at West Point, spoke for the Army as a more sensible career choice. Against this was the wonder of what the next fifty years might bring. It had been less than fifty years since the Wrights first flew, and already we were into the jet age.
Then, too, I had a personal problem. My father's younger brother, J. Lawton Collins, was Army Chief of Staff at the time; my father had retired as a two-star general; another uncle had been a brigadier; my brother was a colonel; my cousin a major — all in the Army. With no similar entanglements in the Air Force, I felt I had a better chance to make my own way. Certainly there was no chance for nepotism, real or imagined.
So the Air Force it was, and after a pleasant month's vacation in Europe following graduation, I found myself in the front cockpit of a single-engine T-6 Texan over the flat farmland of northeastern Mississippi. It was a delightful place to be, especially after four cloying, confining years at West Point. Columbus, Mississippi, was a small, friendly town with a large girls' college, and a bachelor second lieutenant was appreciated if for no other reason than that he had access to the Officers' Club, which featured the only bar in town. But the main thing was the flying! Flying was so much fun it didn't seem right to get paid for doing that and nothing else. Fortunately it came easily to me, and I could relax and enjoy it without the constant apprehension over washing out which plagued so many of my classmates.
After six months at Columbus learning the basics, I moved on briefly to San Marcos, Texas, to learn instrument and formation flying, and then to Waco for jet indoctrination. Graduating with shiny silver wings at Waco in late summer of 1953, I was among the few chosen to go to Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nevada, for advanced day fighter training. This was the most desirable of all assignments, since it was the sole channel into the two Fighter Wings in Korea, which, with their North American F-86 Sabrejets, were battling the MIGs so successfully. At Nellis we really learned to fly — a concentrated, aggressive course designed to weed out anyone who might be a marginal performer in Korea. It was a brutal process as well. In the eleven weeks I was there, twenty-two people were killed. In retrospect it seems preposterous to endure such casualty rates without help from the enemy, but at the time the risk appeared perfectly acceptable. We weren't sure we were going to make it through the course, but somehow we were sufficiently "psyched up" by the instructors to give it our all, despite the fact that the Korean armistice had just been signed and prospects for meeting any MIGs were growing more and more remote. We flew as well as we knew how, three and four times a day, wheeling high above the Nevada sky in fifty-minute forays, learning to shoot the guns and to develop the aerial teamwork which would keep MIGs off our tails. At night we roared into Las Vegas, driving our cars in as close a formation as we flew our Sabrejets, terrorizing the natives, gambling away our paltry salaries, snatching a couple hours of sleep before dawn, when we were expected back at the flight line, ready to hurl our little pink bodies into the blue once more. It was a hectic time, and I'm surprised to have survived. I have never felt quite so threatened since.
Because of the armistice, my destination was changed from Korea to California, and upon graduating from Nellis Air Force Base, I found myself assigned to the 21st Fighter Bomber Wing at Victorville. I had a pleasant year there, still flying Sabrejets but now concentrating on ground attack and nuclear delivery techniques. In mid-December 1954 our wing was transferred to France, so we picked up, part and parcel, and flew East. Christmas found us in Goose Bay, Labrador. By the New Year, we had inched along to Bluie West 1, Greenland (up the fjord at Narsarssuak). Unbelievably bad weather and amply stocked bars made the going treacherous, and we arrived at Chaumont, France, some thirty days after departure in our supersonic jets, having averaged four miles per hour.
The trip had been fascinating (I have never seen anything from the air more beautiful than the clear azure blue of the Greenland glacier's fissured rim) and France was a new flying experience. No more the pure clean air of the California desert, where one could get an unimpeded view all the way from Mount Whitney to Death Valley, from the highest point in the continental United States to the lowest, all in an eye's blink. Now it was the Saar Valley, leaden and flat and heavy with smoke and clouds and greasy pollution, making it difficult for the sun to penetrate even on the best days. No longer were we the proud eagles, flying high, scraping our wings against the troposphere, but now we skulked along, clinging to the protective mists of the valleys, as we practiced our new art of skimming the ground toward our imagined targets across the Iron Curtain. Only occasionally could we escape to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, where once again we practiced our trade of bombing and gun firing and flying in the crystal-clear air. Near Tripoli, in Libya, the U.S. Air Force had established Wheelus Air Base, a large complex where the various fighter units from England and France could come and keep honed the various skills which they could not practice in the crowded, cloudy skies of continental Europe. Once a year a competitive gathering was held among the Fighter Wings, a gunnery meet, and in 1956 I managed to win one of the events and was presented with a silver loving cup, which to this day I treasure above more prestigious honors that have since come my way.
By this time, armed with the trophy, I began to think about how I might progress beyond my present station, not that I was doing badly, as I had become a flight commander and now had my own small brood to train and protect. But I was getting older and hopefully a little wiser; at least the pilots around me seemed to be getting younger.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Carrying the Fire"
Copyright © 1974 Michael Collins.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Collins’ writing can best be described as lyrical. Straightforward--as you’d expect from an engineer, test pilot, and astronaut, someone with with a strong technical background--yet captures the wonder and adventure of man’s first journey to the moon. Obviously completely accurate, without any of the annoying small inaccuracies that often creep into books such as this that describe complex past events. Yet, not so technical that you have have been a fanboy of the Apollo program to follow and understand his descriptions. Highly recommend--the best book I’ve ever read on our space program, back when we had one worthy of the name and NASA had an understood mission with clear goals.
Simply magnificent! As I've spent the last few days tearing through this engrossing book, I've been mindful of how I might be able to review it once I'd reached its end. Now that I have done so I find that I don't really know quite how to express what it is about Michael Collins' writing that moved me so much - except that I know this is most definitely one of the best memoirs I've ever read. It is truly a one-off, as the events it describes are so unique (most obviously the historic Apollo 11 mission) that they could only have been written by one of the members of 1960s NASA space program who was actually 'there'.Collins' writing is very laid back and as informal as it is informative. I rarely read books (for pleasure at least) with quite so much scientific content: rocket propulsion, trajectories, inter-planetary navigation, and so forth, but he puts these topics into words that I found no problem in understanding. Not that these subjects really dominate the narrative - his tale is told in a very personal and humourous style. For an astronaut (& fighter pilot for that matter!) Collins is incredibly humble and self-effacing - he repeatedly reminds the reader of how poor a mechanic he is and how lazy he can be...The early chapters retell his experiences as a USAF test pilot while in the background NASA's manned space program is underway. After some early setbacks he is eventually accepted into the astronaut staff at NASA in Houston, and begins the arduous training for the Gemini program. Amidst tales of geological field trips and survival training in inhospitable desert or jungle environments (in the event of any future re-entry going awry), and endless sickness inducing zero gravity dives, he gives a great sense to the day to day existence of an astronaut-in-waiting. As enjoyable as these pages are, the reader knows - as does the author of course - that it is all building up to the momentous day when he will finally sit at the 'tip of the pencil on the launch-pad' at Cape Kennedy on his way into space.The Gemini 10 mission he flies along with John Young is covered in every breathtaking detail, none more so than Collins' 2 EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activity - spacewalks to you and I). In the first, as he was taking star readings with his sextant whilst standing up in the hatch - head and shoulders out 'there' in space - he writes that he felt at that moment "like a Roman god riding the skies in his chariot". The 2nd EVA, where he has to leave the Gemini altogether and cross the void to reach the adjacent Agena craft (sent up previously specifically for this planned rendezvous), for the purposes of removing and replacing an experiment installed on its outside, is altogether more terrifying. He finds himself grappling with zero gravity while attempting to 'climb' aboard the rear end of a craft patently not designed for such an activity (there were no foot or handholds for his convenience) in bulky spacesuit complete with cumbersome gloves and yards of entangling umbilical line... There is no 'up' and there is no 'down' - talk about vertigo! All this while simultaneously reminding the Gemini pilot Young not to use whichever thruster may happen to be nearest to burning through either said umbilical lines or indeed Collins himself! It's edge of your seat stuff.The final third of this terrific book covers the famous Apollo 11 mission to the moon itself. The quirks of fate that led him to this moment are not lost on Collins as he writes of the medical problem which was discovered while he was due to be assigned to the Apollo 8 mission. His flight status of 'grounded' for several months inadvertently leads to his later inclusion on Apollo 11.I won't retell all that happens, but the moments when he is truly as alone as any human being has ever been - Charles Lindbergh's later congratulatory letter tells of relating to his experience more so than Armstrong's or Aldrin's - in lunar orbit while the landing module 'Eagle' is away on the Mo
For anybody interested in the early space program from Gemini through Apollo, this is the book for you. Most of the Apollo astronaut books walk the thin line between personal recollection and technical detail a bit haphazardly, mostly straying towards the personal side of things. Not so with this book-Mike Collins is not afraid to list off, for example, some of the commands he sent to the Agena satellite on Gemini 10. Not only does he tell you the commands, though, he explains exactly how to input them, what they would do, and the entire control sequences. His memory for detail is incredible, and that is what makes this book so great-the unbelievable detail.
Mike Collins has written the most arresting account of Spaceflight ever. His experiences as an Air Force Pilot and NASA Astronaut are adventures as great and notable as the conquest of Mt. Everest. He tells the story of the Moon Race with technical seriousness and warm humor that gives the reader the impression of actually being in Space to see the sights, sounds and feelings of the extraterrestrial realm. Space Enthusiasts and Adventure Fans alike NEED to have this book in their home libraries. 'Carrying the Fire' is a GREAT book.