(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,