Rifle man shared in success of Apollo 11 mission
July 20, 2009
RIFLE, Colo. – We always remember the images. Photographs, videos and historic film clips chisel their way into the corners of our minds and remain with us, sometimes for life.
But there have been times when words do the same. News and sports events, memorable speeches – capturing those historic sound bites with special words, which also find places in our memories.
Words have long stamped generations and the moments in time that are unforgettable:
“Four score and seven years ago …”; “Give me liberty, or give me death”; “Ask not what your country can do for you”; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”; “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth”; “a date which will live in infamy”; “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical”; “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight …”; “We are all pencils in the hand of God”; “I have a dream that one day …”; “slipped the surly bonds of earth”; and “touch the face of God.”
Words that give birth to images.
Some words transcend generations because of epic historic ramifications.
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Forty years ago today, around 2 a.m. Eastern time, 13 words were uttered that changed the way we look at the universe.
“This is one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s slightly muffled words on July 20, 1969, came as he stepped onto the surface of the moon. It was the first time a human had ever touched another planetary body.
On that night, Tom Collins roused his sleeping family and friends so they could all watch this slice of history from his Florida home.
“I don’t think they really fully understood what had just happened,” he says with a grin.
Tom Collins did.
He was a 28-year-old fluid and components engineer who helped prepare Apollo 11 for the mission. He was very acquainted with the three Apollo 11 astronauts – Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (no relation).
The quest for space exploration molded his life. He spent 37 years working in the space industry, 33 of those at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Since his retirement in 1997 he has lived in Rifle.
Talking about that historic day energizes Collins. “I’ll never forget it, it was exciting. I was glued to the TV when they landed.”
He watched every minute of the landing, and a lot of the entire mission.
“I stayed awake for all of that. It must have been 48 hours or more,” he says.
Collins said he met every astronaut until his retirement in 1997.
Collins’ words gain momentum as he reflects on the historic mission. As that lunar craft drifted toward the moon’s surface, he says his excitement was skyrocketing.
“My first thought was this is really going to happen.”
Then came Armstrong’s famous sentence.
“This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“No one knew what he was going to say. To this day, no one knows if he prepared those words before or not,” Collins says.
Landing on the moon in 1969 remains one of the great accomplishments of mankind. The astronauts also demonstrated a great example of selflessness. You might even say there is no “i” in moon.
The patch worn by the Apollo 11 astronauts was designed by Michael Collins, and the three members all agreed that there should be no names on the patch. Tom says that all patches for other missions had the names of the astronauts.
“They just decided to leave off the names because they were all part it,” Collins says.
Tom’s son is named Michael, and he lives in Battlement Mesa, but it’s just a coincidence that he shares a name with the Apollo 11 astronaut.
Collins says worry and concern was a constant companion. “We knew that anything could happen. There were a lot of things that could go wrong.”
Even after Apollo 11 landed, the concern turned to getting them back home.
“The worst part of any mission was the blast off, then it was the landing,” Collins says.
In the pre-space shuttle days, landing meant splashing into the ocean after a nerve-racking trip back into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Collins talks about that mission and others, letting his technical knowledge bubble over at times. For Apollo 11, he elaborates on things like the moon’s gravity effect on sloshing fuel in the tank and how they first thought they barely had enough fuel to return home.
“We later discovered that there was plenty of fuel,” he says.
There was also an incident when Aldrin broke off a switch to one of the components that caused some uneasy times as they were preparing to lift off the moon.
“You never got over worrying about the mission,” he admits.
Collins, who is now single, says that the worry stress and unrelenting work schedule took its toll on his marriage back then.
He’s complimentary of the movie “Apollo 13,” calling it very realistic.
There’s a scene in that movie where Tom Hanks gazes at the moon as he prepares to lead the mission. Collins says that everyone involved in the space industry gazed at the moon and wondered what it would be like to go there.
Now 68, Collins grew up in the Denver area, went to Colorado State University, then to a university in Florida.
Like many youngsters, the quest for space captured his imagination early.
“I would be outside shooting off rockets. … My mother would get so mad at me,” he says with a laugh.
After college, he got the chance to be part of it.
At 21, he started working on some of the early missions. From firing off rockets in his back yard to working on real rockets that would blast off into space, it was clear that he had found his calling.
“That’s when I really decided that I wanted to be part of [the space industry].”
Somewhat embarrassed, he admits that he was even on the team that designed the bathroom facilities for the Apollo missions. “The first ones weren’t too successful,” he says with a smile.
But that was the space industry. Nothing left to chance, nothing left to explore and solve long before lift-off.
“I tell people that I went to school for 30 years, because we had to learn everything,” he says.
Over his career Collins worked on many missions and takes a moment to think about what was the most memorable, or the biggest thrill.
He worked on missions that sent crafts to Mars and Venus, was part of space shuttle missions, had a hand in Sally Ride’s mission, and of course the Apollo trips.
Then he nods empathetically, thinking of July 20, 1969. “Yes, it would have to be Apollo 11. That was just amazing. It was so unbelievable.”
Says the man who fired rockets in his back yard, gazed in wonderment at the moon, was part of the industry that sent men to the moon, and one of millions around the world who heard those 13 words on that historic day.
“This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
He’s a little disappointed that a younger generation doesn’t know much about the early missions of the space industry. Most just want to talk about the space shuttle. Collins even has a drill rod used to take samples from the moon. It came back with Apollo 14. He chuckles when he says few people are even remotely interested in the 3-foot hollow rod that was on the moon.
The other keepsake he has from the moon is a commemorative coin that was made after they melted down the lunar craft from Apollo 11.
After all his years in the space industry, Collins quickly says he never had any desire to be an astronaut, but his respect for them can’t be any higher.
“Their intellect is so high, they are so smart. And they are so cool. They have to be to do that job,” he says.
Today, Collins will spend some time remembering Apollo 11 landing on the moon. He will think about Armstrong’s words, and when darkness arrives, he might take a moment to gaze at the moon.
A place he will never get to go but a place that helped shape his life.