Collins recently met Gupta to talk about his memories of the Apollo 11 mission as he approaches his 50th birthday.
Collins came from a military family. His father and brother were army generals and his uncle was the chief of staff of the army. He decided instead to sneak into the US Air Force.
In 1961, Collins was a student at the Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Air Force Base in California. That year, President John F. Kennedy said that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and send him safely back to Earth, Collins recalls very well.
Collins and about 80% of his peers were "gung-ho", he recalled. NASA and the idea of the Mercury and Gemini programs, set up for the Apollo program, were attractive, and the space program seemed to be a promotion. The remaining 20% would prefer to fly and test new airplanes for the Air Force rather than being "locked in a capsule and shot like ammunition," Collins said.
Collins, a four-year fighter pilot, graduated from flying school at the age of 22. He "failed" when he first applied for the space program. He says there are 15 or 20 reasons why he could have failed, but he likes to tell the story of the famous Rorschach mishap during his psychiatric examination.
"I flipped through a series of them, then the last one was a blank sheet of paper, pure white, 8 out of 10," he said. "Here, so what do you see?" They asked, "I say," well, of course, that's eleven polar bears fornicating in a snow bank. "And I could see the examiner's eyes would tighten a little.He did not think it was funny, he did not like people to clear up with his deck of cards. for some reason, I failed, the following year, [in the inkblot] I saw my mom and dad, and my dad was slightly taller and more bossy, but not much more than my mom, and I managed it. "
Collins was selected to be part of the third class of astronauts in 1963. His first mission was Gemini 10. His second mission was Apollo 11.
The six years between 1963 and 1969 flew. Collins and his fellow astronauts worked hard, getting up early and neglecting breaks on the weekends. They rarely saw their families and flew from one ocean to another, going to facilities where parts of the spacecraft were being manufactured.
They attended classes to learn everything about the spacecraft that they would fly and spent countless hours in simulators that replicated their missions to defeat all possible mistakes.
Physical fitness was not one of NASA's requirements, Collins said. The astronauts underwent a first thorough examination before being accepted into the program, testing their abilities and senses. But after that, the physical form was left to the individual.
"We had to have an annual physical exam. It was an extremely rigorous examination. They assigned two surgeons of the exchange to one of us, and one looked in that ear, and the other in that ear. you have not seen, you have succeeded, "he joked. "It was the physical exam that NASA had offered us, and they asked us to really do what we felt we should do in terms of conditioning."
At the time, one of the conditions to become an astronaut was the graduation from a school of accredited test pilots. The test pilots were accustomed to mental stress and physical danger. Collins therefore felt that NASA was more focused on other aspects. The priority of the agency was to ensure that astronauts could operate a complex machine that would move for the first time 250 000 km from the Earth.
Collins learned that he would join Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11 at a call from Deke Slayton, whose resume included a World War II pilot, a test pilot, the One of the first Mercury Seven astronauts and the first NASA pilot. Chief of the Astronaut Office and Director of Flight Crew Operations.
He gathered the teams and was "somehow one of those hidden heroes behind the scenes," Collins said. "It was a terrific boss."
Slayton called Collins and asked him, "Hey, do you still want to do this thing?"
"Oh, absolutely!" Collins replied. "You better believe!"
Kennedy's wish occupied a large place in Collins' mind. At 39, he felt that astronauts carried the weight of the world.
He did not talk about the dangers of spaceflight with his wife, Pat.
"We talked about superficialities and perhaps alluded to the serious difficulties involved in spaceflight," said Collins. "We would nibble all around the danger."
The day of the launch, July 16, 1969, arrived quickly.
The three astronauts came out of their vehicle at the base of a tower that rose to 365 feet in the air. An elevator drove them to their control module, Columbia. Everything had to be "all in order and apple pie" before being able to board. Collins looked to his left and saw a clear ocean. To his right was "the most gigantic pile of complex machines you've ever seen."
"And I remember thinking about it – oh, I think I would rather look at the simple rather than that complicated.Maybe it's too complicated for me out there."
The men knew that his chances of failing somewhere along the line were relatively high, but they were optimistic about their survival, Collins said.
After that, the mission took place in a series of imperative events.
"I liken it to a chain of daisies, a chain of long and very fragile daisies," Collins said. "It comes from Cape Canaveral, then it goes into space and around the moon and goes around it and it contains all these links, and if a link goes down, well, all the others down there are useless Eight days before and after, there was always one thing coming, the next big event that could ruin you, be your end.That's how it worked. "
As Aldrin and Armstrong separated from Columbia in the lunar lander, Eagle, to land on the moon, Collins kept circling the moon. Once Armstrong and Aldrin finished, he would go to the eagle and dock after leaving the lunar surface. This maneuver was the one for which they were most prepared during a training on Earth. Collins had an 8×10 laptop with 18 scenarios around his neck. But it's gone perfectly.
Collins was often called "the most lonely man" once back on Earth, but he did not feel that way – even when he lost contact with Mission Control during his overflights off of the Moon. While Armstrong and Aldrin were busy landing, setting up experiments and collecting samples on the lunar surface, Collins himself had to operate all the subsystems on Columbia.
"It was a happy home, I loved Columbia," he said. "It reminded me, in a way, almost like a church or a cathedral, there were the applications, the three couches, and then you went down to where the altar was. It was the guiding and navigating system, almost like a cathedral, and I had a hot coffee, I had music that I could play if I wanted to talk, I had interlocutors on the radio, sometimes too many on the radio, so I enjoyed this interlude, being alone in a machine in the air somewhere was not unknown, and everything worked so well in Colombia, and it m & # 39; It rained. "
When the three men were reunited after berthing, Collins wanted to celebrate with Aldrin and Armstrong. But they had mission objects to manage. The chain of daisies would not be complete until they landed safely on Earth.
"I remember I was going to grab Buzz by the shoulders and kiss him on the forehead, and then decided:" No, it's not fair. " So I do not know. I shook her hand, I tapped her or something. And Neil, I did not even bother to touch Neil when he arrived. That was it. We did not say "oh, you landed on another planet" or something like that. "
Although Collins looked for the little bit of cognac he thought he had stored, he never found it.
Memories of Armstrong and Aldrin
Collins remembers thinking that Armstrong was a great choice for Apollo 11. He could not imagine anybody more beautiful.
"He was probably the best test pilot among us in that he was flying the X-15 rocket plane, which still holds some speed and altitude records, making it the most experienced test pilot, "Collins said.
Collins remembers Armstrong as incredibly intelligent and interesting in the history of science.
After the successful flight of Apollo 11, Collins discovered another side of Armstrong as the three astronauts embarked on a journey around the world to talk about their experiences. Armstrong was their spokesperson.
"It was just amazing," Collins recalls. "He would delve into the context of this and that, and wherever we go, he would pick out details that would be of interest to the locals, and you could see it by the time he finished his little introductory speech, they were almost there. impression as they crawled aboard with us.
"It was just an amazing feat, and I think it's often overlooked in a way – First Man – it's not neglected, but what people may not know about First Man, First Man was a wonderful advocate for the virtues of the United States and spread them around the world. "
Aldrin was also highly qualified, graduated from West Point and third in his class of 500. A fighter pilot during the Korean War, he then continued his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue a PhD in Orbital Mechanics.
"At that time, NASA was considering bringing together two spacecraft in space as the most delicate part of the lunar profile, and here is the man who held a PhD in this area," Collins said. . "So he was very very qualified."
But, joking Collins, that's sometimes all Aldrin wanted to talk about.
"Now, we sometimes tried not to sit next to Buzz at a party because he was working around the clock, with" now, if you get an ellipse and that his epicenter is incongruous with the other, and of course, it happens through and the perigee is out there, "Collins said, and they responded with" OK, BUZZ, OK. "
The three men did not stay in close contact, mainly because Collins lived in Washington, Armstrong lived in Ohio and Aldrin was moving. It was not easy to get together. But they had shared something wonderful and had fulfilled Kennedy's mandate.
Life after Apollo
Apollo 11 was the proudest moment in Collins' life. He may not have had the best spot on Apollo 11, but he was happy with his place, he said. He felt privileged to be there.
His greatest regret was for those who could not be present: the pilots who died in training accidents, the Apollo 1 astronauts and his friend Charlie Bassett, who died in a plane crash. "I thought 'my boy, he would be right at the top of the list of players who will go first on the moon." I regret this aspect. "
After his return, Collins retired from NASA, wanting to spend more time with his family. "Pat and I started a totally different life," he said.
"I thought I did the work in space and at the highest level," he said. "I gave a speech at a joint session of Congress and Secretary of State Bill Rogers liked that speech, he got President Nixon involved, and so I know now that I was offered a position of assistant secretary of state.A little less than two years ago when came up one for which I was better qualified, who was the director of the The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, which had just started, I started with a vacant lot and a hole in the ground and then a building and so on. "
Collins will turn 89 in October. He started running with astronaut Ed White during the Gemini program and ran 50 miles when he was 50, completing triathlons en route.
He still believes that exercise is important and works by using trekking poles because of balance problems caused by peripheral neuropathy., nerve damage that can cause weakness and pain in the feet. He follows a simplified version of the Mediterranean diet and reads to keep his mind sharp. "2001: The Space Odyssey" is his favorite movie, but otherwise he does not watch much TV or movies and does not engage on social networks. And he has the eye to live up to 100 years old.
If there is one question that he is tired of hearing after all these years, it's "how was it up there?" That's partly why he wrote his 1974 book, "Carrying the Fire," which was republished for Apollo's birthday.
Throughout the Apollo mission, Kennedy 's wish was deep in Collins' mind. He is still thinking about this aspect of the mission fifty years later.
"Apollo 11 was the culmination," he said. "We were finally able to do what Kennedy asked us to do, so I think Neil, Buzz, and I thought it was the culmination of a long, successful series. do our best to fill it. "
Watching the moon up close was spectacular, but he remembers that the view of the Earth continued to attract the attention of astronauts.
"I said" Hey, Houston, I have the world in my window, "Collins said. "And the whole world is about the size of your thumbnail if you hold it at arm's length in front of you, all your attention is focused on that little thing over there." It's in a black void, which makes your colors even more impressive In the first place, you get the blue of the oceans, the white clouds, you get a little tan trail that we call continents, but they are not remarkable.This seems simply glorious. "
But Collins has noticed something unique about his perspective of our planet of origin.
"Strangely, it looks fragile," he says. "You want to take care of it.You want to feed it.You want to be good with it.All the beauty, it was wonderful, it was tiny, it`s our home, all that that I knew, but fragile, strange. "
Samantha Bresnahan and Amanda Sealy from CNN contributed to this report.