A million years of homo sapiens and only 24 of us have left low Earth orbit and gone to another world.

Michael Collins, who died on April 28, was one of that elite two dozen, all of them Apollo astronauts who flew nine Moon missions between 1968 and 1972.

As Apollo 11 command module pilot, Collins orbited the Moon thirty times while his crewmates Armstrong and Aldrin made the famous ‘giant leap for mankind’, taking our first steps on the lunar surface. Meanwhile Collins travelled further from our planet than anyone had gone before. And he was alone; no one had ever been so apart from the rest of the human race. He enjoyed the experience and reflected on it deeply.

Five years later, Collins followed his stellar NASA career with the surprise revelation that he was also an excellent writer. His memoir Carrying The Fire (1974) is by far the best firsthand account of what it was like to be ‘out there’ on an Apollo mission. You’d expect an astronaut autobiography to be ghost-written or ‘as told to’, but this one isn’t, and is much better for it.

If Shakespeare was the bard of Avon, Collins was the bard of Apollo!

How lucky for posterity that a USAF test pilot should uncover a latent gift for conveying so many aspects of his remarkable journey in such a thoughtful and lyrical manner. And he achieves this without ever losing the down-to-earthiness that necessarily dominated the most ambitious, complex and risky technical endeavour of all time.

And how fitting for the Moon to light his way out of this world with a magnificent ‘pink supermoon’.

Here are some random quotes from Carrying The Fire.

Back on Earth:
I can now lift my mind out into space and look back at a midget Earth. I can see it hanging there, surrounded by blackness, turning slowly in the relentless sunlight.

On writing the book:
[I tried] to convey in words the magic of carrying the fire, just as the god Apollo carried the sun across the sky in his chariot. For magic is assuredly there: changing urine particles into angels is magic; tumbling end over end with velvet smoothness is magic.

…how would you carry fire? Carefully, that’s how, with lots of planning and at considerable risk. It is a delicate cargo, as valuable as moon rocks, and the carrier must always be on his toes lest it spill. I carried the fire for six years, and now I would like to tell you about it, simply and directly as a test pilot must, for the trip deserves the telling.

It is perhaps a pity that my eyes have seen more than my brain has been able to assimilate or evaluate, but like the Druids of Stonehenge, I have attempted to bring order out of what I have observed, even if I have not understood it fully.

On his future plans:
I am also planning to leave a lot of things undone. Part of life’s mystery depends on future possibilities, and mystery is an elusive quality which evaporates when sampled frequently.

On our world’s future:
The Earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.