Mike Collins (1930 – 2021)

Mike Collins prepares for his Gemini 10 spacewalk.

*

*

(Much of this poem was adapted from the words of Michael Collins in his books, “Carrying the Fire” and “Liftoff.”)

*

With announcement of the death of Michael Collins,

everyone mentions the moon,

the moon and Apollo 11, how close he came

without setting foot on the surface.

It’s the false narrative they give, of him

in the circling command ship,

“the loneliest human in the universe.”

More fitting, perhaps to picture him in a different July,

remember him as the one

exiting the spacecraft, making the EVA.

See him on Gemini 10 with John Young.

*

1. Launch, July 18, 1966

Pre-ignition, the Titan’s two engines dip and sway.

We feel a shutter.  

Our primary instrument becomes the clock.

Grab the ejection D-ring between your legs

A final ten second count.

Ignition — pay attention to those gauges.

We feel the machine rather than hear it — 

with a little bump we are on our way.

The engines shift back and forth; absolutely 

no sensation of speed

at first.  Then pow —

through a layer of clouds.

Staging is a shock,

too many things happening too fast,

ignition and separation from the first stage,

a burst of bright light, red and white, out the windows.

We don’t know it, but as we parted,

our second stage engine torched

the first stage’s oxygen tank, which exploded. 

I luxuriate in my ignorance; the speed

is coming, enjoy the ride.  Precisely

on schedule, the second-stage engine shuts down.

We have arrived.

*

2.  The highest orbit

After a good start to rendezvous

with the tubular Agena rocket stage

already placed in orbit, unknown

to us, an error in the inertial measurement unit

creates an the out-of-plane error

that costs us a nearly a quarter

of our limited maneuvering fuel to correct.

Still we make rendezvous and after a successful docking,

become the first to ride the Agena’s big engine,

there out in front of us in clear view.

At the appointed moment of ignition, I see 

a string of snowballs, a white stream in a widening cone,

but no fire.  Wondering, has the engine sputtered out?. . .

When wham! –the sky turns, orange-white

and I’m pitched forward, plastered against my shoulder straps,

no subtlety to this engine; no gentleness in its approach.

We sway back and forth.  The clock passes

through fourteen seconds.  Cutoff, on time.

We  are now jerked back to weightlessness

and our Gemini is rising to the highest point from earth

reached by humans to date, 475 miles.

*

3.  Stand-up EVA

Opening the hatch, standing

to take ultraviolet photos of young, hot stars,

I feel an awe at the wide visual field.

The stars are bright, and they are steady,

the best view of the universe

that a human has ever had.

*

4.  A second Rendezvous

The first double-rendezvous in history,

closing in on the derelict Agena left by Gemini 8,

eight miles below and closing from behind,

fifty-five minutes of daylight to close the gap,

the spent stage growing from a dot to a cylinder

we make station-keeping distance five minutes before sunset.

During the night pass of 37 minutes, John keep the derelict

zeroed in Gemini’s spotlight, while

I prepare for the spacewalk with my fifty-foot long

oxygen umbilical and chestpack, 

and a nitrogen-fueled maneuvering gun.

I will attempt to be the first person

to cross to another spacecraft,

my task to retrieve a meteorite detection pack.

*

5. The first attempt

Sunrise, and I open the hatch,

look up and slightly right.  There —

the Agena.  It must be twenty feet away,

a black starless sky behind it.

John nudges us slowly

toward the Agena’s end

with a cone-shaped docking collar

and the meteorite pack nearby.

Fifteen feet . . . Ten . . . Six feet.

The Agena is almost directly over my head.

I tell John to back off a bit.

I’m going to leap for her, gently that is.

Softly I push away, 

upward and slightly forward, and . . .

not more than three or four seconds later,

I collide with my target, the docking collar,

grab its slippery lip, and with both hands

work my way around to the meteorite pack.

I’ve built up too much momentum,

my body swinging, pulling me off.

I see nothing but black sky for several seconds.

Slowly this perspective assembles itself:

I am fifteen or twenty feet in front of the Gemini,

looking down on John’s window and my open hatch.

The Agena is below me and to my left, slightly behind me.

I am drifting to the rear of the Gemini,

use my zip gun to slowly swing in an arc

that brings me to the open hatch.

I snag it with one arm, steady myself 

standing on my seat.

Time for another try. 

*

6. The second attempt

John positions us a bit further away,

the Agena’s docking collar 

about fifteen-twenty feet in from and above me.

This time, I use the gun to launch myself

glide miraculously upward,

until I snag my foot

and pitch forward.  Use the gun,

several squirts to right myself, only to find 

my path is taking me over the top of derelict.

I have just enough time to make one last correction,

am able to reach down with my left hand and just barely

snag hold.  As my body swings around, I plunge my right hand

in the gap behind the docking collar and grab tight

on some wires.  Once again I walk myself with my hands

around the rim — slowly this time — until I reach

the meteorite package.  Push two pins and thankfully

it easily releases.  

All my movements have caused the Agena to wobble.

Before it tumbles, John tells me to get away from the thing.

I haul myself by my umbilical line, gently,

toward the open hatch,

toward home.

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