A Photo of Michael Collins, July 1976

Sometimes, one person’s influence summarizes a whole era.

“Museum director Michael Collins sits on the edge of the escalator outside the Theater, finding a quiet moment during festivities for the opening of the Museum on July 1, 1976.” Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Sometimes, one person’s influence summarizes a whole era. Michael Collins is mainly remembered as being Apollo 11’s command module pilot, staying with mothership Columbia while his crewmates, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, became the first humans to step upon the lunar surface in July 1969. (It also bears mentioning that he flew in space alongside John Young during 1966’s Gemini 10, a mission that set rendezvous and altitude records at the time.) However, many spaceflight enthusiasts hold him close to their hearts for two things: writing 1974’s Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, and being the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s third director from 1971 to 1978.

Carrying the Fire wasn’t the first astronaut autobiography to emerge from the Apollo lunar program. Ironically, Brian O’Leary’s 1970 The Making of an Ex-Astronaut may hold that title, even though its author didn’t even make it close to space. But Collins showed that a jet pilot’s prose didn’t have to be merely passable or serviceable, it could sparkle, inspire, and breathe.

Few books can still match Collins’ memories, five years removed, of the magnificent visions he saw during his lunar jaunt. He wrote upon approaching the Moon, “The moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional, small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen. To begin with it is huge, completely filling our window. Second, it is three-dimensional. The belly of it bulges out towards us in such pronounced fashion that I almost feel I can reach out and touch it… The vague reddish-yellow of the sun’s corona, the blanched white of earthshine, and the pure black of the starstudded surrounding sky all combine to cast a bluish glow over the moon. This cool, magnificent sphere hangs there ominously, a formidable presence without sound or motion, issuing us no invitation to invade its domain. Neil sums it up: ‘It’s a view worth the price of the trip.’ And somewhat scary too although no one says that.”

Never before has a reader been so close to the Moon, and never before did an astronaut allow himself to be vulnerable enough to let us into his insular world, sans test pilot bluster. While the term “The Overview Effect” hadn’t yet been coined by Frank White, Collins’ forever-altered view of the Moon — and the Earth it orbited — certainly predicted the phenomenon. Shortly before his passing, Collins admitted with typical humility that he composed Carrying The Fire on pads of yellow legal paper; he used no ghostwriter or co-author to help formulate his masterwork. This is nothing short of miraculous because by the time the book was published, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the Mall was only two years away from a scheduled July 1976 opening. On a strict deadline, Collins was a tremendously busy man.

The nation’s bicentennial as an opening date had long been Collins’ target. According to a Smithsonian Air and Space piece written by Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, curator and department chair of its space history department, “In his role as the third director of the National Air and Space Museum, Michael Collins had his own version of President John F. Kennedy’s three-part mandate for the Apollo lunar landing program. Rather than calling for a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, Collins campaigned for a Museum on the Mall by the nation’s bicentennial. For years, he worked tirelessly to complete the project — both the building’s construction and all the exhibits inside — in time for that deeply symbolic deadline. Marshaling a team of curators and designers, he succeeded. On July 1, 1976, as Collins stood next to the completed National Air and Space Museum building on the day of the historic ribbon-cutting, President Gerald Ford called the museum, ‘a perfect birthday present from the American people to themselves.’”

The museum drew one million visitors during its first month of operation. This was during a time when no U.S. human spaceflight missions were flying, and the Space Shuttle was nearly five years away from its inaugural launch. The Apollo lunar missions Collins had been involved in were already being viewed through a lens of wistful nostalgia, and he was only 45 years old at the time. The ultra-successful opening — along with the interest the museum continues to draw over 45 years later — serves as a powerful testament to Collins’ vision of a destination that could be accessible enough for “regular” people and their families, but also appealed to die-hard space enthusiasts alike.

The most striking photograph of Collins during the museum’s opening day is perhaps the simplest. It’s a photo of him sitting very informally on the edge of one of the museum’s escalators, deep in thought. In his left hand he’s holding what looks to be some pages from one of those legal pads on which he wrote Carrying the Fire, reviewing what looks to be his remarks to be said during the museum’s opening ceremony. There’s no entourage; in fact, he is alone. It’s unlikely he was noticed by anyone lingering around the museum at the time, save maybe for the photographer.

Coco Chanel once remarked, “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” This image of Collins might be one of the most elegant photos ever produced in spaceflight history — a “hero” just blending in, striving to go unnoticed, focusing on putting the finishing touches upon a longtime dream. Michael Collins died in April at age 90, but the elegance interspersed with thrills embodied in his museum and Carrying the Fire are forever inextinguishable.

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