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Apollo 11 astronaut returns to launch pad 50 years later

World News | Published:

Michael Collins said he wished his two moonwalking colleagues could have shared the moment at Kennedy Space Centre’s Launch Complex 39A.

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins has returned to the exact spot where he flew to the moon 50 years ago with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Collins had the spotlight to himself this time – Armstrong has been gone for seven years and Aldrin cancelled.

“Wonderful feeling to be back,” the 88-year-old command module pilot said on Nasa TV.

“There’s a difference this time. I want to turn and ask Neil a question and maybe tell Buzz Aldrin something, and of course, I’m here by myself.”

At Nasa’s invitation, Collins marked the precise moment – 9.32am on July 16 1969 – that the Saturn V rocket blasted off.

Astronaut Michael Collins, right, speaks to Kennedy Space Centre director Bob Cabana at Launch Complex 39A
Astronaut Michael Collins, right, speaks to Kennedy Space Centre director Bob Cabana at Launch Complex 39A (Frank Michaux/Nasa via AP)

Collins recalled the tension surrounding the crew that day.

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“Apollo 11 … was serious business. We, crew, felt the weight of the world on our shoulders. We knew that everyone would be looking at us, friend or foe, and we wanted to do the best we possibly could,” he said.

Collins remained in lunar orbit, tending to Columbia, the mother ship, while Armstrong and Aldrin landed in the Eagle on July 20 1969, and spent two-and-a-half hours walking the grey, dusty lunar surface.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr poses for a photograph beside the US flag on the moon
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr poses for a photograph beside the US flag on the moon (Neil Armstrong/Nasa via AP)

At the Air and Space Museum in Washington, the spacesuit that Armstrong wore went back on display in mint condition, complete with lunar dust left on the suit’s knees, thighs and elbows.

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On hand for the unveiling were vice president Mike Pence, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine and Armstrong’s older son Rick.

Armstrong died in 2012.

Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit is unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington
Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Calling Armstrong a hero, Mr Pence said “the American people express their gratitude by preserving this symbol of courage”.

In Huntsville, Alabama, where the Saturn V was developed, thousands of model rockets were launched simultaneously, commemorating the moment the Apollo 11 crew blasted off for the moon.

Hundreds of youngsters attending Space Camp counted down … “5, 4, 3, 2, 1!” – and cheered as the rockets created a grey cloud, at least for a few moments, in the sky.

Back at Kennedy, Nasa televised original launch video of Apollo 11, timed down to the second.

Apollo 11 timeline
(PA Graphics)

It seeks to put the first woman and next man on the lunar surface – the moon’s south pole – by 2024.

President John F Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of 1969 took eight years to achieve.

Collins said he likes the name Artemis and, even more, likes the concept behind Artemis.

“But I don’t want to go back to the moon,” Collins told Cabana.

“I want to go direct to Mars. I call it the JFK Mars Express.”

Apollo 11 landing site
(PA Graphics)

Cabana assured Collins: “We believe the faster we get to the moon, the faster we get to Mars as we develop those systems that we need to make that happen.”

About 100 of the original 500 launch controllers and managers on July 16 1969 reunited in the firing room on Tuesday morning.

The crowd also included members of Nasa’s next moon management team, including Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, launch director for the still-in-development Space Launch System moon rocket.

The SLS will surpass the Saturn V, the world’s most powerful rocket to fly to date.

Saturn V and other space hardware
Saturn V and other space hardware (PA Graphics)

Hearing Collins’s “personal account of what that was like was absolutely amazing”.

The lone female launch controller for Apollo 11, JoAnn Morgan, enjoyed seeing the much updated firing room.

One thing was notably missing, though: stacks of paper.

“We could have walked to the moon on the paper,” Morgan said.

Only four of the 12 moonwalkers from 1969 through 1972 are still alive: Aldrin, Duke, Apollo 15’s David Scott and Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt.

Nasa spokesman Bob Jacobs said Aldrin, 89, bowed out of the launch pad visit, citing his intense schedule of appearances.

Aldrin hosted a gala in southern California last Saturday and planned to head directly to the Huntsville dinner.

Aldrin and Collins may reunite in Washington on Friday or Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing.

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