Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain

Quick trivia question:  Who is Michael Collins?  Give up?  Here's a hint; yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of the first moon landing.  Some of you still look puzzled.  "Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon," I hear you pondering.  "And then there was that other guy.  The second one - what was his name?  'Buzz' something.  Was it Buzz Collins?  Maybe 'Buzz' was Michael's nick-name". 

No, my friend, that would be Buzz Aldrin, who's real name was Edwin (with a name like that, I'd prefer to be called "Buzz" myself!)  Michael Collins was the guy who didn't land on the moon; the guy who stayed up in the Command Module, patiently orbiting our grey, crater-ridden satellite, while the other two guys had all the fun and soaked up all the glory.  While the world watched Armstrong and Aldrin with rapt, awe-struck attention, poor Collins sat there in his cramped little tin can, patiently doing his job, largely ignored.  While I'm sure there are many reading this who actually do remember Michael Collins, he's the guy who's least likely to be remembered 43 years after the fact.

And yet, Collins' contribution to the Apollo 11 mission was by no means trivial.  He was a key player.  As Command Module pilot, it was his job to get the crew from the Earth to the moon, maintain his orbit while the other two landed and gathered their rocks and take them all back home again, not unlike a space-faring school bus driver or chauffeur.  Most importantly, it was up to him to dock the command module with the lander upon its return from the lunar surface.  If not for Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin would never have made it back home.

While Armstrong and Aldrin explored the lunar surface, Collins spent about 24 hours orbiting the moon.  Every time his orbit took him around the moon's far side, he lost contact with both his crew-mates on the lunar surface and with Houston back home.  He later commented, "I knew I was alone in a way that no Earthling has ever been before."  At one point, he radioed Houston on the high gain and asked how things were going on the surface.  Unlike the rest of the world, he couldn't even watch the historical event on TV. 

"The EVA is progressing beautifully," replied Houston, "I believe they are setting up the flag now." 

"Great!" exclaimed Collins without a hint of chagrin.

Later, Houston patched President Richard Nixon, who called from the Oval Office, through to the lunar surface so that he could personally congratulate Armstrong and Aldrin and tell them how proud he and America was of their accomplishment.  Collins didn't even get a "You too, Mike".

I don't mean to trivialize Armstrong and Aldrin's contribution to the Apollo 11 mission, of course.  All three men performed professionally, courageously and flawlessly.  But Armstrong and Aldrin have their place in history, while Collins stands in the shadows at best.

I have a program called All My Movies which I use to catalog my DVD and blu-ray collection.  One of the program's features is the ability to pull in a full cast list (from for every title and then filter the movie collection by actor, answering questions like "In how many of my movies does Tom Hanks appear?"

In the process of cataloging my movie collection and building the cast lists, I've noticed that there is a class of what I like to call "working actors".  These are actors and actresses who are not big stars, are not well-known, but show up in multiple titles.  They tend to play bit parts like the bartender, the bus driver or even just "Man in front of store", but they seem to get regular work without ever coming into the limelight. 

For every Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, there are hundreds of these "working actors".  For every Neil Armstrong or Chuck Yeager, there are meny lesser-known astronauts and pilots who may be every bit as competent and professional, perform crucial "behind-the-scenes" or support tasks, but get little, if any, recognition or thanks.  Here's a shout-out to Michael Collins and everyone else like him, the regular working men and women who go out into the world day after day, do their best and eschew the limelight.  The world needs them, even if it doesn't always acknowledge them.

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