Michael Collins has had nearly 16 years to ponder the question: What was it like to go such a distance, to come so close and yet to be so far away?

There he was, a quarter of a million miles from Earth, orbiting the moon, while his two astronaut companions, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, made history as the first humans to walk the surface of the moon.

This week TV viewers have a chance to recall the exploits of Apollo 11 in the third installment of "Spacecraft," the ambitious four-part series produced by PBS and DuPont.

At a time when our seemingly innate fascination with space adventure is being exploited and teased by such recent productions as "Space," both book and TV miniseries, and "The Right Stuff," book and movie, along comes "Spaceflight." The real stuff.

"Maybe I'm too close to the production to judge it," said Collins. "I read the scripts. I went to Baggett's ("Spaceflight" producer Blaine Baggett) house in Alexandria (Va.). I saw rough cuts of the series. I wasn't involved in writing it," said Collins, who has a book, Carrying the Fire, to his credit. "I was checking things for accuracy and emphasis."

" 'Spaceflight,' " he said, was a little heavy on the footage from the days of the German V-2 rocket development. "Maybe it's that he came across some V-2 footage that had never been seen before," said Collins. But aside from that, he said, we're talking about the real stuff. But when it comes to the film version of "The Right Stuff" and "Space," we're not.

"I'm a Tom Wolfe fan and a Michener fan," said Collins. "I've read The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test and Flak Catchers, and I liked The Right Stuff. I thought it was superbly done, accurate, a nice piece of work.

"But the movie -- it was half Tom Wolfe and half s---. The casting was good and the way they handled the flying scenes and the ambiance at Edwards Air Base were fine. But in the movie everyone's made to be an idiot except the astronauts. The press, the NASA officials, even the vice president of the United States. It was not that way in the book. They were all changes for the worse. It was long, tedious, a parody of the book."

And when Collins said he was an old fan of James Michener, he meant he was a fan of the old Michener.

"I think he's been going downhill," said Collins. "I thought Chesapeake was long and tedious, and I labored through Space.

"I thought the television version was fine considering the work they had to deal with. But it didn't have much to do with space -- it was a soap opera. It could have dealt with anything, with people dropping in and out of bed."

Collins can base his space-movie criticism on something other than his experience as astronaut. As director of the Air and Space Museum, he was instrumental in bringing Washington one of the biggest hit movies of all time.

He left the museum in 1978 to be undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution, went on to be a vice president of an aerospace firm and since the first of the year has been a consultant.

He became associated with the museum in 1971. "It was still a parking lot," he said. One of the decisions to be made in constructing the museum was whether to incorporate IMAX 70 mm movie projection, a system in use only in Canada at the time. The system features a large-format film backed by a 12-kilowatt light, focused through a custom-made lens and shown on a five-story screen. The first thing to be shown on that system was "To Fly," a 26-minute film that has played for nine years and become one of the museum's -- indeed one of Washington's -- prime tourist attractions.

The decision to put IMAX in the museum didn't come easy. "I was frightened," said Collins. "I didn't want to be first in line. I'd like for someone else to work the bugs out first."

Perhaps that attitude was at work when he orbited the moon: Let Buzz and Neil work out the bugs.

But Collins, veteran of a 1966 Gemini flight as well as Apollo's 1969 excursion, never went back. "Someone said once that I sold out at the top," Collins recalled. "But I felt it might have been downhill after that. I would have had to go to the back of the line and wait for a chance to go back and walk on the moon. That would have taken a couple of years and put a lot of pressure on my family. I decided to bail out."

Any regrets? "No."