Forty-seven summers after he traveled to the Moon as Apollo 11 command module pilot, former astronaut Michael Collins was in Washington this week, along with Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and CEO of Amazon.com, for the John H. Glenn Lecture in Space History at the National Air and Space Museum (where he had served as the first director in the 1970s). Looking fit and relaxed at 85, Collins sat down earlier in the day for a chat with Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt.
Air & Space: How are you passing the time these days?
Collins: Well, I’m a good retiree in that I have a lot of hobbies. For one thing, I get a lot of exercise. I do one mini-triathlon a year, and I spend a lot of time fishing. I’m a watercolor painter. I spend a lot of time—not a lot of money, but a lot of time—worrying about the stock market. So I’ve got different things going on.
Are you writing anything?
No, no, I’ve written four books and I’ve said about everything I want to say.
How closely are you following the space program now?
I’m not, really. I read Aviation Week [and Space Technology], and just what I see in the papers. This guy Jeff Bezos kind of interests me.
Have you been to Cape Canaveral and seen any of those new facilities going up, toured the SpaceX launch pads or anything like that?
I went to the Cape about a year ago, I guess, but it was more of a nostalgia thing, not so much focusing on the new facilities as looking at the old Pad 39A, that kind of stuff. I’m an interested amateur. I guess you could put me in that category.
Is there anything particular that provokes memories of the Apollo days?
Well, the moon kind of surprises me sometimes. I’ll be out at night and I’ll see a nice moon, and say, “Hey, that looks good.” Then I’ll say, “Oh shit, I went up there one time!” Kind of surprises me. It’s like there are two Moons, you know—the one that’s usually around, and then that one.
Have you looked at those Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter pictures of the lunar landers sitting on the Moon’s surface?
I’ve seen some of them, yeah. I’m amazed at that kind of photography. And I don’t know what it does to the people who believe we never went. I think the number stays pretty constant—about six percent of Americans think it’s a hoax, and that we never went [to the Moon]. That’s supposed to make me outraged, but it doesn’t, it makes me laugh. I’d love to get together with a whole crowd of them in one room, with all these different theories, and listen to them and laugh at them.
Have you had any exchanges with them?
Not much. But the same guy that Buzz [Aldrin] punched came to see me one time. You’re supposed to swear on a Bible he carries along with him that you went to the Moon. Buzz, though, got mad and punched him.
He went to my house, and I didn’t know he was following me. I went to the supermarket and he followed me into the supermarket. Then he started saying who he was, and he started to draw a crowd, so I left the supermarket. Then what I tried to do—I failed miserably—but I tried to back him up into a flower bed. There was a stone wall about that high [gestures to indicate about a foot] and it’s full of flowers. And he’s wanting to talk to me, he’s got this thing in my face. So I maneuvered around where I got closer and closer, while he backed up. And I was almost to the point where he was gonna fall on his ass into the flower bed, and I would say “See you later!” [Laughs] But he felt [the wall] on his calf and he stopped.
That took some careful planning.
Yeah, I worked hard at it. Failed miserably, though.
That sounds more fun than actually trying to argue points of fact.
Well, I guess there are sub-cults within the cult, because they can prove conclusively that, yes, you did launch in that rocket because people saw it. But they can “prove” from the photography that you never left Earth orbit, that you landed behind the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas or somewhere—I’ve forgotten where you came out. But anyway, I’d really just love to see a convention of the nutballs and talk to them.
Be careful what you wish for, they’ll ask you to come.
Yeah, they might. [Laughs] Next time, though, watch out for flower beds. I’m gonna get them.
How do you think we’re doing in the quest to put people on Mars?
Well, I’ve been a proponent of Mars for years. I used to joke and say NASA ought to be renamed the NAMA, National Aeronautics and Mars Administration. And now I don’t joke so much. I think maybe they really could be. Anyway, I’m very focused on Mars. My friend Neil Armstrong thought it was a good idea to have a stop-off point at the Moon, and he’s a lot better engineer than I. So I respect the people who want a lunar base, maybe on the South Pole or over on the back side where electronically it’s a quiet zone. But not me. Mars—let’s go.
What do you think when people like Elon Musk start talking about sending people to Mars in the 2020s?
I don’t know him. But he certainly is an amazing guy, and if you told me ten years ago this rich fellow is gonna start building expensive electric automobiles, I’d have said, “Well, good luck, you’re just gonna pour money down a rathole.” Yet he’s either damn lucky or he’s damn good, or maybe both.
The idea of a vertical lander being so much cheaper, that’s a pretty obvious idea, but it was one I never thought about. So I think he had a lot of foresight, or he had some good people advising him. And of course, Bezos is doing the same thing with a vertical lander.
So yeah, I’m impressed by that aspect. On the other hand, I’m a government defender in the sense that, as long as they’re taking federal appropriations to do these things, I think they have to fall under the federal organization and federal planning. They can’t have it both ways. If they want to go waltzing off on their own, that’s fine. But as I understand it right now, most of their business is with federal contracts, so it’s confusing to me. As I say, I’m not an expert.
It’s difficult to imagine a wholly private venture to send lots of people to Mars.
Well, from all I know, you’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars, and people who know a lot more about it than I do seem to think it’s even beyond the ability of the United States government to reasonably finance that. It has to be an international thing. You have to get Chinese, French, British and Saudi Arabian money in there. The goal is inhabiting [Mars] rather than planting the American flag.
Public attitudes about risk have changed since you went to the Moon in the 1960s. Do you think the public is still willing to take that risk?
I think exploration carries with it a certain amount of risk, and there’s a certain amount of risk that’s unavoidable. And if we sit around on the ground and wait until everything is 100 percent safe, we’re not going anywhere. So I would vote for crazy people who want to take on a lot of risk, rather than the ones who are more rational and say you ought to really consider the consequences of this, that, and the other, and therefore we’d better study it some more. I’m pro-risk, although that’s the wrong way to say it.
Any other thoughts about today’s space program?
No, I think we’ve covered the ground pretty well. I’d say there are two kinds of astronauts. There are those who are astronauts all their lives—Buzz Aldrin is a good example. He eats, lives, and breathes space, and he’s got a whole bunch of ideas, usually pretty good ideas, about our future. He’s mister space, space, space. Not me. I’m from the other camp. [Being an astronaut] was the most interesting job I ever had, but when I left, I left.