The Trip to Totality – Michael Collins & The Photo

I was driving Maddie somewhere on one of those bright hot summer days that washed out the sky and the desert so wide you feel alone in all the space. We were talking about the moon and the up coming solar eclipse. I thought of Apollo 11, as it was July 21. When I was a boy my favorite astronaut was Michael Collins. How he was the furthest away from home than anyone could get with nothing but the moon’s gravity keeping him from drifting further away. Collins wrote in his journal, “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”
I thought about a photo he took and told Maddie. “There’s this photo that the lone astronaut in the command module took of the lunar module as it returned from the surface of the moon with Earth in the background above the moon’s horizon. Someone said that all of humanity living and dead were in that frame except one.”
“Why didn’t he take a selfie? He could have gotten everyone.”
I laughed. “Selfie cams weren’t a thing back then.”
“He could’ve held the camera backwards.”
“I suppose he could have, but maybe it wasn’t common for people to do that or maybe the window wasn’t big enough for him to fit his head and get a shot of the lander and earth. Maybe the focal length on the camera wasn’t right. Maybe he was a humble guy and never felt the need to stick his face into an image where the subject wasn’t him.”

“What kind of camera was it?”
“I don’t know. I’ll look it up when we get home.”
Susan Sontag wrote, “Photography is the inventory of mortality.” How with one “touch of the finger now suffices to invest a moment with posthumous irony.” Collins said he was terrified the lunar lander wouldn’t make it back. It could crash in the Sea of Tranquility. If they did land safely, there was no guarantee the engine on lunar lander would fire or wouldn’t fire long enough to make escape velocity. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would be trapped in a low orbit around the moon, just out of reach of the command module, circling until they ran out of oxygen.
Collins, in his status of potential sole survivor, watched the lander undock and then he waited the hours. What relief he must have felt seeing lunar lander returning. It’s a wonder he had presence of mind to aim his camera and press the shutter release. His fellow astronauts maneuvered from the lunar surface with his home planet visible 250,000 miles away. A lot has been said and written about how the photos of Earth from space made people realize out fragile our planet is and how you cannot see borders from space. Upon returning, astronauts have expressed “ideas like unity, vastness, connectedness, perception — in general, this sense of an overwhelming, life-changing moment.” The intense awe is the “overview effect.” Awe in contemporary lingo, like, “Dude, that’s awesome,” doesn’t capture the whole sense of the word because it lacks the feeling of dread and the fear, which is equal to the wonder and amazement.
There was another photograph that captured the earth and beamed back that struck dumb billions of people before Collins’s shot. On Christmas Eve in 1968, Astronaut Bill Anders took the first Earthrise photo. He told the Guardian, from his home in San Diego, California. “After all the training and studying we’d done as pilots and engineers to get to the moon safely and get back, [and] as human beings to explore moon orbit,” he said, “what we really discovered was the planet Earth.”
For me, the image of the lander in the foreground above the lunar surface, and knowing Collins had held down the ship alone as the earth spun so far away, made me wonder about senselessness of life in that way of a junior high school existentialist. It was absurd we all lived on this spheroid and our very nature drove us to kill each other and destroy the thing that gives us life to make money. Only psychos shoot their mother for profit, and it seemed like the psychos were winning. It appeared many people are incapable of feeling awe. Look out on the Grand Canyon figure it’d be better filled in. But at the same time, I felt the awe, looking at the photo. It boggled my mind that I was on the earth and Collins had been looking back. We circled a small star on the outskirts of a galaxy and, in the scope of the universe, as alone as Collins had been as Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. We were not insignificant, but unique and possessed with not just a persistent will to survive, but the creativity to thrive. The space program gave me hope. We can rise up and be better than the sum of our savageries.
Sontag also observed, “Some photographers set up as scientists, others as moralists.” Collins didn’t get to walk on the moon. He might have on Apollo 17, the last moon mission, if he hadn’t gotten out of the space program. But because of his unique position in the command module on Apollo 11, he took one of the most sublime photos in history. He froze mortality, capturing everything that ever was on earth, save him and the capsule. He made the familiar unfamiliar and forced us to see the world in a new way, whether we wanted to or not, and made some of us take stock in a place called Earth. He believed if politicians could see the world at 100,000 miles their views would be fundamentally changed. That our world would “cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment.” Some set up as scientists and then become moralists too.
Maddie and I arrived home, and I looked up the cameras from the space programHasselblad. I showed her the image of the lander, the moon and the earth. I also told Maddie a fun fact that she and Michael Collins had both been born on Halloween.
“Birthday twins,” she said. “That’s awesome.”
Photograph from Apollo 8 by Astronaut Bill Anders.

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