My history hero: Chris Hadfield chooses Michael Collins (1930–2021)
Astronaut Chris Hadfield chooses Michael Collins as a history hero
Michael Collins: in profile
Michael Collins served as a fighter and test pilot with the US Air Force before joining Nasa’s Gemini space programme. He is best known for being the astronaut who flew the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia, in the US spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon in 1969. He later became director of America’s National Air and Space Museum.
When did you first hear about Collins?
When I was about eight and just becoming aware of the world around me. For the first time in history people were flying into space, and Michael, who was part of the Apollo programme, was named as one of the men who was going to the Moon. As a boy, I was hugely excited by the idea of space flight.
What kind of man was he?
I met Michael Collins – a proud man from a military family who was inspired to become a Nasa astronaut by John Glenn [the first American to orbit the Earth] – a couple of times. And I found him to be a self-effacing, erudite and thoughtful man, albeit one with a twinkle in his eye.
What made him a hero?
First, his bravery. He was heavily involved in Project Gemini [Nasa’s second human spaceflight programme], which lurched from one near-disaster to another, flight after flight. But he did such a good job on the Gemini 10 spaceflight that he was selected for the Apollo programme, and became only the fourth human being ever to do a space walk.
Secondly, I really value people like him who make the most of themselves and don’t just coast through life, letting other people tackle the hard problems. Thirdly, he served his country, which is something I respect. I think everyone should serve the organisations that nurtured them.
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What was Collins’ finest hour?
His finest hour surely came during the Apollo 11 spaceflight that landed the first humans on the Moon. Collins helped get Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin into the lunar lander and then undocked the ship (of which he was now commander). As the Earth popped into view from behind the horizon of the Moon, he grabbed a camera and took several pictures. He recognised even then that every human being who had ever existed, save him and his crewmates, was in that iconic picture.
Can you see any parallels between Collins’ life and your own?
Yes. Like me, he grew up in a place where it was impossible to be an astronaut, but studied and trained, became a fighter and test pilot, and defended his country before going into space. Like me, he also believed in sharing his experiences as an astronaut.
What would you ask Collins if you could meet him?
I’d love to have a chance to talk to him now and, if I could, I’d ask: “How and why did you choose what to do next in your life [after becoming an astronaut and going to the Moon]?”
Chris Hadfield has flown two Space Shuttle missions. His novel, The Apollo Murders, is out now. On Earth and Space: Chris Hadfield’s Guide to the Cosmos tours the UK in June.
This article was first published in the May 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.
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