Remembering Michael Collins, Apollo 11 Hero

By: Mark Mancini  | 

Apollo 11 Command Module pilot Michael Collins
Apollo 11 Command Module pilot Michael Collins practices in the CM simulator on June 19, 1969, at Kennedy Space Center, just a month before liftoff. NASA

One of the three astronauts who made up the historic Apollo 11 crew, NASA veteran Michael Collins passed away today, April 28, 2021, at the age of 90.

"NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential," said Steve Jurczyk, the agency's acting administrator, in a statement.

"Whether his work was behind the scenes or in full view, his legacy will always be as one of the leaders who took America's first steps into the cosmos. And his spirit will go with us as we venture toward farther horizons."

Collins was born on Oct. 31, 1930, in Rome, Italy. His father, a career officer in the U.S. Army who'd go on to retire as a major general, was stationed there at the time.

After his family returned stateside, Collins earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating with the class of 1952. He then became an Air Force test pilot, which opened some interesting doors (to say the least).

Apollo 11 crew
Official crew photo of the Apollo 11 Prime Crew. From left are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot.
NASA

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. Glenn's achievement was an inspiration for Collins. "I certainly had no childhood dream of flying to the moon or anywhere else, but the idea was damned appealing," Collins wrote in his autobiography, "Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys."

He was selected to join NASA's third class of astronauts the following year. His first extraterrestrial adventure came in 1966, when Collins embarked on a three-day spaceflight with fellow astronaut John Young. Known as Gemini X, their mission was one for the record books; the two men reached the then-unprecedented altitude of 475 miles (764 kilometers).

Of course, Michael Collins is best remembered for his role in Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 Command Module pilot Michael Collins
On Jan. 9, 1969, NASA announced the prime crew of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. This portrait was taken on Jan. 10, the day after the announcement of the crew assignment. From left are Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin, Commander Neil Armstrong and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins.
NASA

On July 16, 1969, at 8:32 AM (Eastern Standard Time), Collins, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were launched out of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They were the three explorers NASA had chosen for the first mission that would ever put a man on the moon.

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A Man Alone

Four days into their adventure, on July 20, Collins parted ways with his crewmates.

Seated in the Eagle landing craft, Armstrong and Aldrin made their descent onto the lunar surface. An American flag was planted; photos were taken; Armstrong said the immortal words, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Meanwhile, Collins stayed behind in the crew's command module, orbiting the moon as his colleagues explored it.

"I don't mean to deny a feeling of solitude," Collins said of his experience. "It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life."

Apollo 11 Command Module pilot Michael Collins
As Mike Collins remains in lunar orbit, some thought he might be the most lonesome person in the universe "Actually, I was so glad to get behind the moon so Mission Control would shut up. Then I had some peace and quiet," Collins joked. Here he is seen in a command module simulator on June 19, 1969, during a practice rendezvous and docking maneuver with the lunar module.
NASA

Charles Lindbergh sympathized. The Apollo 11 crew reunited in space and later returned to Earth on July 24. Back on their home planet, Lindbergh — the first pilot to complete a solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean — wrote a letter to Collins.

"I watched every minute of the walk-out, and certainly it was of indescribable interest," Lindbergh told him. "But it seems to me you had an experience of in some ways greater profundity — the hours you spent orbiting the moon alone, and with more time for contemplation. What a fantastic experience it must have been — alone looking down on another celestial body, like a god of space!"

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First Director of the National Air and Space Museum

Between Gemini X and Apollo 11, Collins logged 266 hours in space altogether. He retired from NASA in 1970, but went on to become the first director of the National Air and Space Museum. Collins held that position until 1978.

During his museum tenure, the former astronaut joined the Air Force reserve and would retire as a major general in 1982.

Collins enjoyed a number of hobbies, some more strenuous than others. Speaking to Air & Space Magazine in 2016, the then 85-year-old astronaut said, "I get a lot of exercise. I do one mini-triathlon a year, and I spend a lot of time fishing."

He was also a vocal supporter of Mars exploration; at an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, Collins described the red planet as a "much more worthwhile destination" than the moon.

"We will miss him terribly," said the family of Michael Collins in a statement released earlier today. "Yet we also know how lucky Mike felt to have lived the life he did. We will honor his wish for us to celebrate, not mourn, that life. Please join us in fondly and joyfully remembering his sharp wit, his quiet sense of purpose, and his wise perspective, gained both from looking back at Earth from the vantage of space and gazing across calm waters from the deck of his fishing boat."

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