Michael Collins practices in a simulator on June 19, 1969, at Kennedy Space Center. Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface weeks later on July 20. File Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo
ORLANDO, Fla., July 15 (UPI) -- Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins is glad to hear more talk about missions to Mars as Saturday's 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk fires up public interest in space.
But Collins doesn't think NASA or anyone else is ready to go to Mars soon. In an interview with UPI, the decorated space pioneer said the United States has learned relatively little since the Apollo missions from the shuttle era and the International Space Station.
"If you have to learn 1,000 things before we go to Mars, then what we have learned since Apollo is 50 or 100 items," Collins said.
He said NASA's current plan to build a lunar base, with a platform orbiting the moon, is heading in the wrong direction.
"I see more moon missions as delaying Mars, which is a much more interesting place to go," Collins said.
Collins, 88, will speak about the Apollo missions at a private event at 4 p.m. Tuesday in Cocoa, Fla. That is 50 years to the day in 1969 that he lifted off from Earth aboard a massive Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Collins said it seems like a lot fewer than 50 years since Apollo 11. "I guess I'm kind of overwhelmed by the diversity of the interviews and the interest in the anniversary," he said.
Speaking with Collins will be astronaut Charlie Duke, who walked on the moon during Apollo 16; Rusty Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9, the first manned flight test of the lunar module; and Gerry Griffin, the Apollo flight director and later director of Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Collins said he applauds the new space ventures funded by private companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin.
"I welcome both of them with their money," Collins said. "I don't regard them as a competitor to NASA. But it adds to the overall resources aimed at space exploration."
If the nation had united behind a mission to the Red Planet, Collins said he believes it could have happened already. At least, he said, it would have happened sooner than the current timeline, in which the Trump administration has pegged 2024 for another moon landing to prepare for an eventual trip to Mars.
"A voyage to Mars makes Apollo look like child's play. It's an incredibly difficult and complex voyage," Collins said.
Collins remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. Collins also flew on the three-day Gemini 10 mission in 1966, during which he set a world altitude record and became the nation's third person to complete a spacewalk.
After leaving NASA in 1970, he served more than a year as the assistant secretary of state for public affairs under President Richard Nixon. He also wrote several books, including Carrying the Fire, in which he describes his space missions.
Media at the time of the moon missions seized on the idea of Collins being the "loneliest" person in history as he flew around the moon by himself.
Collins said that always puzzled him. He felt alone and isolated, but not lonely, because he was excited to be part of such a historic mission. He said he knew there was no way for him to rescue his colleagues if something had gone wrong on the lunar surface.
When the other two astronauts finally made it back to the orbiting module, Collins said it was a "time of exultation that the two of them had done this thing and returned."
But the celebration was very brief. He describes space travel as a fragile chain of events in which many things can go wrong.
"Unfortunately, you could not sit around and high-five and pat yourself on the back," he said with a chuckle. "It was more like, 'Get the hell back in here, spill those rock boxes and figure out where the heck we are and what's the next step.'"
Collins said President John F. Kennedy's call for a moon mission had been a "mandate of simplicity."
"We knew exactly what we were supposed to do and when," Collins said. "We would often hear in our work, well, Kennedy wanted this and Kennedy said that."
Asked what he remembers most about the mission, Collins, like many other astronauts, says seeing Earth from space is life-changing.
"The view from the moon of tiny Earth is something I'll always bring with me. It was tiny but very memorable. Blue and white. It seemed to project a quality of fragility, which unfortunately has turned out to be quite true," Collins said.