Time-Lapse Video: A Quarter Million Miles

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July 20 2013 8:00 AM

Apollo 11 and a Quarter Million Miles

Apollo 11 lunar module on approach
Only one human being alive on July 21, 1969 is not in this picture.

Photo by Michael Collins/NASA

Today is the anniversary of the first time humans set foot upon another world. Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong lifted away from Earth on July 16, 1969, and on July 20, 1969, Aldrin and Amstrong effectively sliced all of history into two different halves.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Collins represents an interesting paradox. While he was one of the three Apollo 11 astronauts to go to the Moon, he didn’t walk on its surface. His task was to stay in orbit, on board the Command Module, while Armstrong and Aldrin cavorted upon the lunar surface.

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Some people feel sorry for him, getting almost all the way to the Moon but denied the opportunity to land there.

But he also had a singular opportunity: He became the farthest man in the Universe. When he circled the far side of the Moon, the nearest people to him were thousands of kilometers away, and ignoring them, the rest of humanity was 400,000 kilometers distant. A quarter million miles.

This happenstance is both amazing and melancholy, an experience he describes in his book, “Carrying the Fire”. Musician Simon Lacey read the book, and became so inspired by Collins’ adventure that he wrote several classical pieces of music about it. A friend of Lacey’s, who is a TV editor, agreed to put together a time-lapse video of the Earth seen from the International Space Station, and together they created this wonderful collaboration:

Lovely! The music is sweet, but still with a hint of loneliness to it. The emotional sway of the music makes the connection to Collins more palpable.

This is the first of several pieces by Lacey, and I’m looking forward to seeing the next.

As for Collins, a little while back a picture circulated the ‘net (shown at the top of this post). It shows the Lunar Module carrying Aldrin and Armstrong returning to orbit, about to rendezvous with the Command Module carrying Collins.

You’ve probably seen it; I have looked at this picture countless times. But it still startled me when I saw the caption someone had dreamed up for it: “Michael Collins is the only human being, living or dead, not in the frame of this picture.”

Perhaps that won’t always be true; there will come a time when a picture of the Earth doesn’t encapsulate all of humanity. But for now it does, and while we can’t all experience the feelings Collins had at that time, perhaps, on this day, one of greatest of all anniversaries, the music by Lacey can help us understand them.