In April and May 2021, after the death of renowned former astronaut Michael Collins, a colorful old quotation, widely attributed to him, reemerged online.
One meme in particular became popular on Facebook and on the online forum Reddit. It contained a photograph of Collins, shown in the center, along with his Apollo 11 crewmates Neil Armstrong (left) and Buzz Aldrin (right). The text in the meme was as follows:
When Neil Armstrong was pondering what his first words on the Lunar surface would be during the Apollo 11 landing, Command Module pilot Michael Collins jokingly suggested:
“If you had any balls, you’d say ‘Oh my God, what is that thing?’ then scream and cut your mic.”
Did Michael Collins Really Say That?
However, the earliest source for the quotation that we could find was the 1998 HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon,” specifically the sixth episode, “Mare Tranquilitatis” (the name of the plain where Armstrong and Aldrin landed the lunar module on July 20, 1969).
One scene is described as taking place in February 1969, at the home of Frank Borman, who had been commander of the Apollo 8 mission, which orbited the moon in December 1968. The Apollo 11 crewmates, played by actors, are shown socializing and discussing what significant words they might say upon landing on the moon’s surface.
At one point Aldrin (played by Bryan Cranston), discusses with Borman (played by David Andrews) the Apollo 8 crew’s famous recitation of the creation story from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve, 1968. When Borman asks Aldrin what the Apollo 11 crew plans to say, Collins (played by Cary Elwes) interrupts and delivers the humorous line later featured in memes and social media posts. The following is an edited transcript of that scene:
Aldrin: I want to say, Frank, I was inspired by what you guys did. Reading from Genesis — that was great.
Borman: Yeah well, you know we’re being sued by an atheist …
Aldrin: When did you decide to say that?
Borman: After a PAO [public affairs officer] up in Washington took me aside and told me more people would be watching us than ever watched anyone in human history. We’d better have something appropriate to say. What are you guys going to say?
Collins: If you had any balls, you’d say “Oh my God! What is that thing?” Then scream and cut your mic.” [Emphasis is added].
Originally, Snopes was not able to verify the authenticity of that quotation.
A search of a newspaper archive covering the period in question yielded no results for any of the phrases in question. Likewise, we checked Andrew Chaikin’s 1994 book “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts,” but found no corroboration for the “scream and cut your mic” line. Significantly, Chaikin interviewed each of the relevant participants for his book, including Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin, and the book was used as the basis for the HBO miniseries.
Collins’ memoir “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey” also contains no mention of the humorous quotation, and the Apollo 11 mission transcripts are similarly devoid of mentions, ruling out the possibility that the HBO miniseries had transplanted the quotation from that source into the setting of a party at Borman’s home months earlier.
After this fact check was published, we heard from the screenwriter Graham Yost, who wrote two episodes of “From the Earth to the Moon,” including “Mare Tranquilitatis,” and who would later go on to create the series “Justified.”
Yost confirmed for Snopes that the quotation later attributed to Collins was a line he himself had written for the show. Yost told us, “I made it up out of whole cloth,” adding “I hope it made Collins laugh.” As a result of this significant new information, we updated our rating from “Unproven” to “False.”