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July 20, 2009


After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon forty years ago today, the moments at which Michael Collins was on the moon's other side were by far the furthest away any person in history had ever been from all other human beings.

The moon's diameter is 2159 miles, and the command module orbited about 60 miles above the surface. So Collins was approximately 2200 miles from Armstrong and Aldrin, or roughly the distance from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles.

(I once investigated this for an article I never wrote.)

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at July 20, 2009 11:56 PM

i always thought it kinda sucked to be michael collins. if his name goes down in the record books for this as well, it would suck twice as much!

Posted by: almostinfamous at July 21, 2009 02:37 AM

" far the furthest away any person in history had ever been from all other human beings."

Other than Dick Cheney.

Posted by: Oarwell at July 21, 2009 09:58 AM

AI: funny isn't it how Armstrong is remembered for flubbing his line; aldrin for being no.2; and collins for being the guy left behind...

I stayed up all night to watch that thing. And I remember thinking, man, those guys are one bunch of gutsy dudes. Especially after my brother asked, "And if that lunar module doesn't take off, what's plan B?"

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 21, 2009 10:24 AM


Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 21, 2009 11:40 AM

When I remember about the human altitude record being still just above the moon's orbit, I kind of furrow my brow.

Real life ain't like 2001: A Space Odyssey. That monolith's still buried on the moon and the Watchers are all "WTF are they dinking around for?"

Posted by: Cloud at July 21, 2009 02:29 PM

I had a hard time getting the exact specifics on this, but I think it's possible that Robert Falcon Scott may have been farther from any living human being when he died.

If I read it right (see Robert Falcon Scott's Last March), just before he died on March 29, 1912 he was the only living person in Antarctica. He was somewhere near Cape Evans, Antarctica which appears to be just about 2,200 miles from the southern tip of New Zealand on a Google Map.

I'll grant you that it's nowhere near as impressive as Michael Collins' distance from nearly all of humanity - but at the time, I'm sure it felt similarly far.

Posted by: Paul Kittredge at July 21, 2009 02:59 PM

If you haven't seen the lovely doc "In the Shadow of the Moon", I recommend rectifying that situation. Of all the commentary provided I thought Michael Collins was the most interesting of the bunch.

Posted by: BenP at July 21, 2009 09:05 PM

Paul, if I remember correctly I looked into that when I was going to write an article about it, and Collins was definitely further away from everyone else. Partly (again, if I remember right) it's because the straight-line distance between two points on the planet's surface (if you could tunnel through the earth) is less than the overland distance.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at July 21, 2009 09:05 PM

In space, no one can hear you quietly sobbing about how lonely it is in space.

Unless you've got a radio, I guess.

Posted by: Transit at July 22, 2009 12:00 PM

Unless you've got a radio, I guess.

That's another part that's worth thinking about -- with the moon in the way, Collins couldn't even radio anyone. He was as alone as a human could possibly be.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at July 22, 2009 12:14 PM

Unless he brought an 8 track player with some Chet Baker. Then just imagine how lonely he'd feel.

Posted by: Oarwell at July 22, 2009 12:29 PM

When Scott died, he was only a few miles from a rescue party sent out from the British base at McMurdo sound. The same men waited over the winter, and then went back in the spring to retrieve his body and those of his companions.

Incidentally, there was a point when Amundsen's party, returning from the pole, and Scott's party, still headed toward the pole, passed within twenty miles or so of one another.

Posted by: SteveB at July 22, 2009 01:22 PM

Alone? Yes. Lonely? Well, that depends. Some would argue (see Benjamin or Poe) that the most powerful loneliness is experienced amidst others.

Posted by: john at July 24, 2009 12:51 PM

It's a beautiful and poignant image, but one other possible exception comes to mind. It's likely that Polynesian rafters crossed the Pacific to America. Evidence of little pre-Bering-invasion settlements have since discovered on South America's Pacific coast. As the settlements died off, at some point there was probably only person there, unless they went all ice-nine together and avoided loneliness with suicide.

Posted by: hedgehog at July 24, 2009 01:15 PM