The space industry has lost a favoured son. Astronaut Michael Collins, one-third of the historic three-man Apollo 11 crew whose mission was to land a man on the moon, has died aged 90.
On 20 July 1969, the world held its breath as it watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps onto the lunar surface. Orbiting the moon 100km above sat Michael Collins piloting the command module Columbia. This was the halfway point of the eight-day mission and perhaps the most risky moment for all until Eagle delivered its human cargo safely onto the moon’s surface.
While Armstrong and Aldrin completed their tasks, Michael Collins was alone and out of communications range with Houston and his fellow astronauts for 48 minutes each time the module passed behind the moon. He spent almost 24 hours in orbital isolation. He said, “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it.” It takes a cool head and fierce courage to carry that responsibility, knowing that if anything goes wrong, it’s game over.
In the preceding days, Michael performed the multiple complex manoeuvres of separation from the Saturn V rocket and rotating and docking of Columbia to the lunar module for descent to the moon’s surface. Much has been made of the fact that Michael did not get to walk on the moon, was less in the spotlight and was perhaps, initially seen as a background player in this nation-defining moment of space exploration.
Nothing could be further from the truth and as Michael later joked in 2019. “I was their ticket home, they couldn’t get home without me.” His command and mastery of the pinpoint precision needed to re-dock Columbia with the lunar module for the return trip to Earth, was pivotal to the mission’s success.
Michael’s thousands of hours as an Air Force Pilot, previous spaceflights and many days spent in simulations meant he knew the command module inside out and back to front, and as a crew, they practised for any number of eventualities. On their return Michael said, “All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all those I would like to say, thank you very much.”
Space exploration, testing and R&D has always been a team sport that starts here on Earth.
In Australia, the goal is to create 20,000 jobs in the space sector in the next ten years, fuelling a demand for new skills, technologies and industries. Like Michael Collins, these supporting roles will be critical.
So what are these jobs? Unsurprisingly, many are grounded in the STEM fields in areas such as systems and software engineering, rocket propulsion technologies, developing materials for use in space, so they withstand high levels of radiation and advancing biotechnology research with space experiments which lead to discoveries about serious diseases like muscular dystrophy.
Robotics and AI will design intelligent systems which can be operated remotely in the harsh atmospheric conditions of space, the Moon and Mars. Researchers will build Australia’s first quantum-enabled laser communications network to enhance the speed, quality and security of the communication needed for the nation’s defence. Jobs will be created in software development, data analytics, fabrication, project management – the list and the possibilities are endless. And our industry will also need lawyers, communicators, administrators and people with broad business skills that can be applied to the space industry.
To get to 20,000 jobs, we need to inspire students from the grassroots up to think about space as their career of choice. It is up to all of us, who already work in the sector, to help connect the dots for high school students, undergrads and professionals so they understand the possibilities of a space career.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings, Michael Collins reminded us of what we are capable of when we work together. “I remember so vividly the trip that we took after Apollo 11 and we were surprised that everywhere we went, every city we visited, we were greeted with ‘we did it’, humanity, human beings put our talents together and we have done it and we have to build on that spirit.”
With his passing at the age of 90, Michael’s extraordinary achievements with the Apollo 11 crew are now in the hands of the next generation of our space industry. Our job is to lead them to embrace that spirit, continue the momentum of space exploration and uncover the discoveries which await us, now and in the decades to come.
Are you in?