Andreu’s blog

Book review. Carrying the Fire. An Astronaut's Journeys by Michael Collins

The book is almost 500 pages long, but it doesn't feel like it. Michael Collins was an excellent writer. It is strange, because there is no mystery to the story. Everyone knows that Apollo 11 went to the moon and came back safely, yet I was unable to put the book down.

Collins was part of the first astronaut crew that landed on the moon in 1969. He tells the story from the start of his military career, how he became a test pilot, to the return from the moon. He tells about his day to day, how it was to prepare for a space mission and the role of the astronaut in developing the spacecraft.

I found very interesting to learn about the duties of the astronauts, how they divided the work of testing and helping define the different components and systems for each mission. I had the impression that astronauts where some sort of rat labs placed on the spacecraft, but that was not the case, at least not in the 1960s. The coolest part is that since they all where test pilots, and NASA thought that it was important to keep their skills fresh, they had T-38 jets at their disposal which they used to attend the constant series of meetings with suppliers located all over the US.

I also enjoyed the description of flight mechanics. Orbital flight is not very intuitive. To slow down you have to move to a higher orbit and to accelerate, to a lower one. So if you are trying to chase another spacecraft orbiting above you, what seems a logical maneuver, to go up, will send you further apart, not closer. I wished the book went even more into technical details, but that is probably just me. Anyway I may program a space flight simulation sometime, because I found it fascinating.

Astronauts spent a lot of time in the simulator, rehearsing every step of the mission and every possible situation. They went through endless checklists every time. I understand that commercial pilots also spent a minimum number of hours in the simulator and the use of checklists is also common. The difference is that pilots spent most of their time actually flying, while Collins, in his 6 year career as an astronaut flew only twice with two completely different spacecraft. It is like learning to drive a car in a simulator and then, on the first real trial, driving through dense traffic in rush hour. This goes to show that simulations and rehearsals are really effective. The use of checklists has been extended outside aviation into many other domains and was popularized by the Checklist Manifesto, but I think the use of simulations and rehearsals is not so widespread. I can imagine that building simulation software, for example, could help plan construction better and avoid delays and cost overruns.

Collins talks a little about the relationship between the astronauts and the crew members of each mission. He was close to some of them, but not to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in spite of working together on the Apollo 11 mission for months. They respected each other and had a good working relationship, they even joked together. They were a very effective work team, but never became friends. It seems like kind of sad and I got the impression that Collins thought the same. They went each their own way after the moon mission and they did not keep in touch.

Astronauts where very focused during mission preparation, which would last maybe 6 months. I got the impression that they were completely absorbed by their job. If they did not become completely stressed or burned out, it was because they had a very clear goal and they were working at the edge of their abilities to accomplish something that they were clearly very motivated for. Also the surprising amount of drinking (Martinis seemed to be a favorite of Collins) would help to disconnect, I suppose.

The US spent about 25 billion dollars to send three men to the moon (about 250 billion in today's dollars). It was a difficult engineering task, but the goal was clear and the physics, for the most part, quite well understood. It was a matter of throwing engineers and money to the practical problem of developing all the subsystems needed to accomplish the mission. I wish political leaders today where similarly ambitious and would set inspiring goals, like developing nuclear fusion, cost-effective direct carbon capture or practical flying cars 😜.

I have never been particularly interested in astronauts or space exploration, but I enjoyed this book so much that I am looking forward to reading Collins' other books, Flying to the moon and other strange places, Liftoff: The Story of America's Adventure in Space and Mission to Mars.

Last updated: 2023-06-18