Project Apollo: The Invisible Astronaut

This article is part of a series where the Apollo 11 mission is used as a theme alongside the coaching of a school rugby team. The aim is to create greater connections and to ‘find a story we belong to.’ The first piece and overview of this project can be found here.

“Go Thou to Rome…”

Next to the Colesium, there lies the remains of a temple. This is hardly surprising as Rome is awash with remnants of the past but all that is left of this temple is the corner of the frieze. This once great edifice is now almost completely lost to time. Three pillars hold up a large stone. Refusing to succumb to…inevitability. Steadfast and enduring. Remove one pillar and all that remains would be total ruin.

What a symbol for any team of how deeply we depend on one another. How integral we all are to one another and how utterly interdependent we have become. This was the image we used to express that connection and cohesion we want our team to become.

The name of this ruin? The Temple of Apollo

The Loneliest man in the universe

Everyone remembers Neil Armstrong. Most people remember Buzz Aldrin. Very few -if any- remember the third man of the Apollo 11 mission. While Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface taking one small step…one solitary figure was all alone, orbiting the moon; isolated from everyone and everything. While the eyes of the world were glued to TV screens as mankind set foot on a celestial body, very little attention was paid to Michael Collins as he waited in hope for the return of his crew members.

Whereas Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had the task of piloting the lunar module ‘Eagle’ to the surface of the moon, Michael Collins was tasked with staying in ‘Columbia’. One of his major roles was to inspect Eagle from his vantage point of Columbia – once they had detached – to ensure the landing gear had deployed and was ready for its journey to the lunar surface. Then he would stay put, orbiting the moon 30 times while his colleagues undertook the most famous part of the mission.

For 21 hours, Collins was left all by himself, losing radio contact with both his crewmen on the moon or NASA, on Earth as his command module, Columbia, passed around the dark side of the moon. During this time, there was no one more isolated in the universe than Collins and he was dubbed the ‘Loneliest Man in the Universe’. He later reflected on this solitude in his book ‘Carrying the Fire’:

I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life.

I am it.

While he spent all that time alone, Collins’ thoughts drifted towards his compatriots and the fear that they might not be able to return to him and be stuck on the lunar surface. Collins was prepared for this morbid outcome.

When the trio did eventually return to Earth and a world tour was undertaken by them, Collins was often the member of the crew who was less inclined to be center-stage, preferring to shun the limelight. He was happy to have played his part, as the invisible astronaut, on this incredible and historic mission.

For more information on Collins, you can click here for the podcast ’13 Minutes to the Moon’ or check out the Youtube video below:

The Forgotten Astronaut

Who is our ‘Michael Collins’?

There is much to admire in the story of Michael Collins when you examine his life, his career, his time before, during and after the Apollo 11 mission. Collins’ story is one of humility, selflessness, independence, perseverance and duty. He is an incredible role model to hold up in admiration in any walk of life. His pioneering spirit -the next piece will address the women of NASA who were pioneers- and unique role within the Apollo 11 crew is something to behold and a useful way for us to explore similar characteristics among our own team.

Having introduced the team to Michael Collins and explored his role in the success of Apollo 11, we asked the following questions of the group:

Who makes others shine around them?

Who sets up the tries rather than score them?

Who does the unseen work that makes the rest of the team perform?

Who makes someone else’s job easier?

Who puts the team first every time?

Who is invisible so often but essential to us?

Who is our Michael Collins?

It was interesting to see who the team discussed as being the one who was most selfless, most encouraging of others, most willing to put the team ahead of themselves. It was good to recognise the people in our team who make such invaluable contributions without getting so much of the rewards.

It was also useful for us to praise some the traits we want to see in good team-mates and to celebrate these. My own view is that good teams do not just occur naturally and that the more we as coaches can draw attention to examples of good practice, we more likely we are to foster cohesive groups. Michael Collins is a prime example of a selfless team-mate, so much so that we have taken to asking the question during training or matches: “Who has been the Michael Collins today?”

Off the Ball

Over the last 18-24 months, I have become far more aware of coaching trying to focus on what is happening in training and matches ‘off-the-ball’. If you are a coach, I recommend you spend some time deliberately looking anywhere else than where the ball is and see what you notice. Very different patterns emerge and you see players contribute in ways of which you had not previously been aware.

I also recommend you consider this same mentality by trying to seek out who the your Michael Collins in your team, be it sporting, professionally or other groups that rely on each other.

Ask yourself: who is invisible but essential?

By doing so, you will at the very least have considered those on the margins of your team and at best you will help galvanise the bonds that form between the best groups.

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