Dear Columbia - A Love Letter to a Spacecraft


  1. Dear Columbia - A Love Letter to a Spacecraft
  2. ISS Expedition 60 and the symbolism of mission patches

Dear Columbia - A Love Letter to a Spacecraft

With all the hype surrounding the Apollo 11 50th anniversary last month, there's a story I hadn't gotten around to sharing yet about Michael Collins, the oft-forgotten 3rd crew member of the first lunar landing. A veteran of both the US Air Force and the Gemini Program, Collins served as  Command Module Pilot, meaning that he would orbit the Moon alone in the command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin boarded the lunar module down to the lunar surface

Collins remained in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the lunar module

Knowing full well Collins would miss out walking on the moon, Deke Slayton, NASA's Chief of the Astronaut Office, promised Collins command of his own Apollo mission, probably Apollo 17. But Collins declined - he said that if Apollo 11 was successful, he was satisfied with his contribution to humanity, and he would let others go instead. I feel the humility and sense of duty to the world in his response is so overlooked by us today, it's worth sharing his story

In the years after Apollo 11, history depicted Collins as having been the loneliest man in the Universe, circling the moon alone farther away from any other human in the cosmos. But in reality, Collins himself said he didn't feel lonely at all - he had his beloved Command Module all to himself, and 50 years later, Michael Collins returned to say thank you to the spacecraft that kept him company on the far side of the moon

Collins practicing removing the spacecraft's docking hatch at Johnson Space Center, just 18 days before launching to the moon

This story originally appeared on National Geographic's "Dear Spacecraft" series on July 19, 2019

Dear Apollo 11 Command Module,

May I still call you Columbia? I know you are still traveling, visiting museums now instead of zooming off to strange places, but before you get too complacent, I want to remind you of your humble origin. You were born in 1966 in Downey, California, and there I christened you. Gumdrop, one of your predecessors was called, but I bypassed your awkward, squashed-mushroom geometry and looked into your future, bobbing gracefully on the Pacific swells: indeed Columbia, Gem of the Ocean

The interior space - about as roomy as a large automobile - served as the main quarters for the astronauts, a place for living and working

How well I remember nursing you along the assembly line, not an easy process as we labored past midnight through one arduous test after another to validate your credentials. I was proud of you and eager to climb on board, as we made frequent visits to Launch Pad 39A, Gateway to the Moon.

On the Big Day, with seven-and-a-half million pounds of thrust churning away beneath us, I feared for your fragility. But strong you were; you didn't even pop a circuit breaker. You seemed to like leaving Earth better than sitting on the launch pad and were even smoother in space (well, except for Fuel Cell #3, but I did not consider it a failure, but simply a free spirit not to be regimented like #1 and #2)

Now that I have gotten rid of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and sent them to frolic on the surface 60 miles below, the two of us can finally be alone. Please, another black coffee while I finish this tube of my favorite, the cream-of-chicken soup. And the thermostat, 76˚F. Good, very comfy here.

For whatever reason, perhaps some very slow news days, the press has taken to announcing that here I am, the loneliest man in the whole lonely universe, with an orbit so lonely that my loneliness exceeds that of all lonely souls before me. Ridiculous. How could I be lonely? You have me and I have you (plus the fuel cell), and that view out the window.

I think I'll take a photograph of what truly does seem lonely, the tiny Earth. But wait. Bill Anders has already taken that picture on Apollo 8, so no point in wasting film on a duplicate.

Instead, I think in preparation for our return to Earth, I should commemorate your contribution, Columbia: a portrait, or some kind of artistic acknowledgement, perhaps a golden sheen on your heat shield, or nymphs dancing, or a moon rock embedded with a star sapphire. Not having any of those, here goes with my trust old ballpoint pen:

Spacecraft 107, alias Apollo 11, alias "Columbia," the finest ship to come down the line, God bless her - Michael Collins, CMP

While aboard the U.S.S. Hornet following Columbia's splashdown on July 24, 1969, astronaut Michael Collins crawled back into the command module and wrote this inscription on one of the equipment bay panels

ISS Expedition 60 and the Symbolism of Mission Patches

I learned of this story from none other than Michael Collins himself! On his Instagram a few weeks ago he shared an awesome NASA article explaining the symbolism behind the current ISS Expedition 60 mission patch, following the successful launch of three astronauts aboard Soyuz MS-13 on July 20, 2019 (coincidentally the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11)

Apollo 11 mission patch on the left | ISS Expedition 60 mission patch on the right

Breaking down each element in the mission patch:

  • The three stars behind the moon form the letter L, the Latin symbol for 50 (Apollo 11 50th anniversary)
  • The moon is a waxing crescent, the phase it was in on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his first steps
  • The stars behind the 60 form the same eagle shape as the Apollo 11 patch
  • The sunrise represents that we are still at the dawn of human space exploration
  • The hexagonal shape represents the space station's cupola (the awesome hexagon observation deck) and the six crew members of Expedition 60
  • Like Apollo 11, the names and nationalities of the crew members were left off to highlight that space exploration is for all humanity, more than any individual or nation (most mission patches include the crew members' names)

For an 88 year old retiree, Michael Collins has some awesome social media accounts - definitely go like/follow his Facebook and Instagram @astromichaelcollins. Still lookin' good, 50 years later! He even once liked my insta story :D

Thanks for acknowledging my humble space blog, it means a lot to get a like from the legendary Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot :')

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