While I have not posted book reviews or write-ups on this site for texts that do not fall within the theology/Christian living category; however, I felt compelled to make an exception in this case. I hope that as you read you will understand why and forgive the digression from the usual subject matter.
A couple of years ago, in 2019, the year of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight which saw three men fly to the moon and two become the first people to walk on the surface of another planet – I became somewhat interested in the subject of space flight and exploration.
It all began with listening to the fascinating ’13 Minutes to the Moon’ podcast by the BBC World Service. The series, hosted by Kevin Fong, chronicles the Apollo program’s finest achievement, focusing particular attention on the critical 13-minute descent period in which the space-age-alfoil-covered spider-like Eagle Lunar Module left the Columbia Command and Service module bound for the vast and desolate surface of the moon, eventually touching down at ‘Tranquility Base’ – a milestone in human history. Along the way, I heard this book mentioned as the seminal work of astronaut autobiography and eventually picked up a copy to read for myself.
Michael Collins, for those unaware – as I was before my 2019 and post-2019 space exploration deep dive – was the third astronaut, the Command Module Pilot on the Apollo 11 mission. While Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin landed on the moon, Collins circled above in orbit, simultaneously becoming the most ‘alone’ man (at least physically) in the universe as he passed behind the back side of the moon multiple times, out of radio contact with the earth, while his fellow crewmates went to explore the surface. Collins’s task was certainly different to the other two team members; however, as he points out, he was still perfectly content with it and it was 100% essential to the mission’s success. The title, ‘Carrying the Fire’, was one of Collins’s key mission objectives – looking after the Command Module ‘Columbia’ and its engine (the literal fire) that was the ticket home for all three men.
Those who like to pit science against faith, as if the two are angry people who cannot stand to be in the same room as one another, would quite likely read this book as a triumph of the human intellect and use it as a reason to believe humans are capable of anything they put their minds to, if given the time and resources to achieve them, which they might argue negates the need to rely on God as creator and sustainer of all things. Not only do I find this position arrogant and logically flawed for theological reasons, I also find it fascinating that Collins, like the Astronauts on Apollo 8 before him were so struck at what they saw from space, that the existence of God was never all that far from their minds. Though Collins grew up in and around the Episcopal church, I do not believe he was a practicing Christian. He openly admits he doesn’t think he ‘found God’ in space, and yet, it seems evident through the way he writes about the vastness of space and the uniqueness and fragility of earth, the beauty of its design and so on, that deep down there is some recognition that the earth we call home is too significant to have come about by chance. I find it fascinating that, although none of the three Apollo 8 astronauts claimed to be very ‘religious’, they agreed that it seemed right to spend perhaps precious moments during their Christmas Eve 1968 broadcast on their mission to be the first to fly around the moon and return to earth reading from the Word of God, specifically the creation story in the book of Genesis (1:1-10).
I don’t draw any major theological conclusions from this, but it is one of many things I find fascinating about the epic journey of mankind’s travels into space. If you’re at all interested in human endeavour, exploration, adventure, intelligent design, or the intersection of science and faith at a key moment in history, you too may like to dig into the story (really multiple stories) of Apollo.
The book was, considering it was written by a test pilot who obviously had an incredible intellect, is surprisingly readable… in fact, despite its length, I’d argue it was a real ‘page turner’. Collins strives for accuracy in his recounting of historical events, people, places and decisions along the way, but never gets into the weeds in a way that makes you wonder why he’s included the detail he has. At times he climbs up into the world of high-flying, gravity defying physics and mathematics, but only long enough to give necessary context, before he quickly pushes the joystick away from him and brings the reader back to more easily understandable prose. Not only that, but this is in places a ‘laugh out loud’ kind of book. Collins is quick witted, finds the humour in situations naturally and is self-deprecating in a lovable and comedic way. Reading about his experiences training as an astronaut in jungles and deserts had me laughing to the point of struggling to breathe at times, and yet the whole thing was not a joke to him. There is a reverence and respect for the process, the mission, the goals and the gains for humankind that resulted from the Gemini program, leading into the Apollo program in general and Apollo 11 specifically, but it is never a burdensome read. Collins’s humanness and humour shines throughout and truly makes this book a joy to read.
Although it’s probably not likely that astronaut autobiography is truly ‘for everyone’, if you’re at all intrigued by this unique event in history, you cannot go past Carrying the Fire as a near perfect record of an astronauts journeys. I trust if you read it, you will not be disappointed.