Title: Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys
Author: Michael Collins
Release Date: June 23, 2009
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction, Space/NASA
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Michael Collins is the oft-forgotten third member of the crew of Apollo 11, the man who orbited the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on it. In his memoir, he discusses his early years and the road he took to becoming an astronaut. He details his personal triumphs and setbacks, and tries to give the reader a sense of the sheer wonder of seeing the earth from the moon.
Carrying the Fire is widely regarded as the astronaut memoir. The one that tugs at your emotions, that really gives you a sense of what it’s like to travel in space. It’s generally considered to be the best of the many offerings out there, so I went in with high expectations. After all, I’ve read and enjoyed many of these astronaut memoirs (Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane, The Last Man on the Moon by Gene Cernan, and Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell, just to name a few), so I was curious to see what made Collins’ memoir one of the greatest.
Part of what makes Carrying the Fire so appealing is the personal nature of it. Collins pours out his thoughts, hopes, and fears onto each page; there is no sugarcoating. He gives an honest opinion of his fellow astronauts, which is very insightful. He isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind, which is refreshing; too often in these books, the authors are hesitant to be critical of any part of the space program. But it’s with these criticisms, especially from those who know best, that NASA can grow and change, avoiding past mistakes.
One thing Collins does exceptionally well in Carrying the Fire is make the reader feel like they are in the narrative. Readers will easily be able to close their eyes and picture exactly what Collins is doing. His language is so descriptive, and he is just such a talented writer. Additionally, his sense of humor permeates the entire memoir and makes it very entertaining. Though this is a long book, his wit makes the pages pass by quickly.
Carrying the Fire was written shortly after Collins retired from the astronaut program and moved onto the director position at the National Air and Space Museum. While his observations and reflections are definitely still relevant, parts of the memoir feel a bit dated – his thoughts on the barely-planned shuttle program, or the far-away idea of a space station, for example. While the 40th anniversary edition does have a new forward from Collins, I’d love to see a few more chapters on his thoughts on where the space program is now. That being said, he’s written more books, and it’s completely possible those musings are in one of his other works.
All in all, Carrying the Fire is a memoir worth reading. If you’re only going to read one Apollo-era astronaut memoir, this should be it. Though Collins’ career in the space program wasn’t the most dramatic (I think that award goes to astronauts like Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and John Young), this memoir is pitch-perfect and beautiful.