The world remembers July 20, 1969. One small step. One giant leap. The Eagle has landed.
It was a remarkable achievement, how three men could bring an entire planet together. Sadly, a half-century has passed, and the space program might have been the last truly unifying moment in our nation’s history.
I also choose to remember July 21. That’s when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, still high on history and moon dust, packed up their stuff and checked out. They began their ascent to reunite with fellow astronaut Michael Collins in the command module.
Collins — the “forgotten astronaut’’ — had orbited the moon 30 times, like a guy circling the parking lot waiting for his friends to come out of the store.
While history ordained Armstong and Aldrin as moon rock stars, Collins never got his feet dirty. He was left with one of those “We Went to the Moon and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” moments.
Still, he was more than space’s first Uber driver, a footnote in the sky. Had it not been for Collins, we might be remembering this 50-year anniversary as a tragedy instead of a triumph.
His role as a supporting actor has been immortalized in pop culture. A folk singer named John Craigie wrote a song about him.
Now the history books will write
About that fateful night
Them two fellows dancing on the moon.
But they won’t say nothing about me
To bring those boys safely home to you.
Three years before the moon landing, Michael Collins began one of those parallel universe connections with my family. He was a member of the two-man crew of Gemini 10 with John Young. It was Collins’ first space flight. (Young flew on six missions in the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs and had the longest career of any NASA astronaut.)
On July 21, 1966 — 53 years ago today — Gemini 10 sailed to Earth on the wings of orange-and-white striped parachutes and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. A team of physicians was waiting on the USS Guadalcanal to give Collins and Young their post-flight physicals.
When Collins removed his space suit, he had a small Bible strapped to his left thigh. That made a tremendous impression on the senior medical officer, who had been assigned to examine Collins.
I know this story well. That doctor was my father, Jennings Grisamore.
In a way, my dad and Michael Collins were kindred spirits. Although my father was a few years older, they shared the same birthday, Oct. 31. However, history won’t list it that way. One of my favorite family stories is about a country doctor in Jamesport, Missouri, who rode on horseback to a farm on the night of Oct. 31, 1924 to deliver a baby. The little boy was born a few minutes before midnight. My grandmother, not wanting her youngest child to be born on Halloween night, convinced the doctor to change my father’s birth certificate to Nov. 1.
He was reunited with Collins in a distant way for Apollo 11. Dad was a captain in the Navy and a surgeon at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station hospital in Florida. Our family lived on the base. The St. Johns River was in our back yard.
Four days before Christmas in 1968, he took me, my sister and my grandfather to Cape Kennedy, where we watched Apollo 8 rise in a fireball across the Indian River. It was a magnificent sight. (One of the members of Apollo 8’s three-man crew was James Lovell. He later served as commander of Apollo 13, the famous aborted lunar landing mission. He was played by actor Tom Hanks in the movie.)
My dad later was selected as part of the medical teams for Apollos 9, 10 and 11. He was assigned to a nearby military hospital during the launches. Had there been any kid of accident or explosion, he was on the medical crew that would have treated the astronauts for injuries.
After Apollo 8, I also got to see the liftoffs of Apollo 9 and 10. We did not go down to the Cape for Apollo 11. There were too many people. A crowd of more than 1 million was there to witness history. My dad watched it from the roof of the Air Force hospital.
A few days before the launch, he had been given a personal tour of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, the one that would make history. From the interior of the rocket, he was shown all the various escape methods. In the event of an explosion, a high-speed elevator was designed to take the crew to a platform, where they would dive into a rubber chute and slide to an underground bunker with thick, steel walls, reclining chairs for 24 people and an oxygen supply.
By the time the Eagle had landed on the surface of the moon, my father was home with his family in Jacksonville. We watched the moon landing on the television in the den. It was exciting.
I remember being proud my dad was part of it. I still am.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.