Former Kennedy Space Center engineer Tom Collins of Rifle commemorates his space program career on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11
More than a half century has gone by, but there is still a sparkle in Tom Collins’ eyes and a grin on his face when he starts to reminisce about the space program.
The 78-year-old Rifle resident first set foot on Florida’s Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center in 1963.
“There wasn’t much to see. Back then, it was still palm trees, and they were still building everything, including the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building),” Collins said.
“It was one of the world’s largest buildings, but it was still just under construction, as were all the pads.”
Collins recalled that it was an interesting time. They were launching Gemini’s at the time, and the Mercury program had just wrapped up, he said of the earlier manned spacecraft programs that preceded the Apollo Program.
“Very interesting as a matter of fact. When I first went down there I was in charge of a lab, and I sampled space suits for Gemini,” Collins said.
“I got to meet a lot of the Gemini astronauts. In fact, I probably met them all but I don’t remember,” he said. “It’s been too many years.”
ground floor of apollo
Soon after, Collins began working on the Apollo Program as a fluids engineer on the Saturn V rocket.
Collins did maintenance on all the hydraulics, hypergolic, pneumatic and cryogenic systems — anything that had fluid, he worked on it.
“I loved my job. I really enjoyed it,” Collins said. “It was very time-consuming, and there weren’t any experts in any of these fields, so we had to work a lot of hours to make up for that.”
Of all the people working on Apollo 11, Collins said the average age when it took off was 28.
“I was 28, as matter of fact — kind of a funny,” Collins said.
Because of what he was doing and where he was working, he had opportunity to meet the Apollo 11 astronauts.
“They were all really nice guys,” Collins said.
Reminiscing about the day of the launch, on July 16, 1969, Collins remembers he wasn’t allowed in his office that day.
“My office at the time was between the VAB and pad A, right on the crawler way as matter of fact,” Collins said.
“So, we couldn’t even go out there and work — that was within the blast limit. We were hanging back at the LCC (Launch Control Center),” he said.
Collins watched Apollo 11 blast off from the front of the LCC, more than 3 miles from the launchpad.
For Collins and the other employees behind the scenes at the time, it was just another launch.
“I’d already watched so many of them go up. We had already gone to the moon, but we hadn’t landed. You have to remember, of course, Apollo 8 was the one that just circled and took pictures, and we saw the moon rise,” Collins said.
“Apollo 10, the “Lem” (Lunar Module) went down close to the moon and came back up, just checking docking and to see if everything worked.
“So the launch wasn’t exactly a big deal for Apollo 11, except we did know it was going to the moon and landing — hopefully — and it did.”
COMMEMORATING moon landing
As the anniversary approached, Collins recently visited the Rifle Branch of the Garfield County Library to inquire if they would be interested in displaying his collection.
After learning it was the Rifle Heritage Center that is in charge of the displays, Collins offered to loan his own memorabilia that he has kept over the years.
“I forget now what percentage of Americans, or even earthlings, weren’t even born when this happened,” Collins said.
Working for the Kennedy Space Center for 33 years and 37 years with the space program overall, Collins collected a lot of memorabilia, certificates and mementos along the way.
“I kept most of it. This is actually just a small portion of it,” Collins said.
He never kept track of how many launches he took part in and watched first hand over his three decades in the space program, but he says there is nothing like it.
“It rocks everything, vibrates the whole earth. It’s amazing,” Collins said of the launches.
“I used to attend Firecracker 400 at Daytona. If you go and watch, it’s a whole different experience,” he said of the popular longtime NASCAR event.
“The rockets are the same way. You can watch it on TV, but it’s certainly not the same.”
The library display includes all the patches from the Apollo program, plus the certification and awards Collins received working on the different missions.
“The Apollo program wasn’t just the lunar landings. We had Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz project (the docking of an Apollo Command/Service Module and the Soviet Soyuz 19 capsule) — the mission where we linked up with Russia,” Collins said.
“I worked on all those, and there were three missions to the Skylab.”
Collins really hopes younger people will come to the library, and get an interest in the space program.
“I think we’ve lost a lot of interest in it, and it gave us so many things that we wouldn’t have had if not for the program,” Collins said.
“I would like to see more people take an interest in what we did, and what’s coming in the future.”
Collins plans to stay close to home this week, but thought about going down to the Cape for the anniversary. But he said there is nothing there for him all these years later.
The display will continue for the next two months in Rifle.
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.