Michael Collins—a two-time astronaut who piloted the command module during the historic Apollo 11 mission that landed the first humans on the Moon—died on Wednesday after battling cancer, his family said. He was 90 years old.
“He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side,” the family said in a statement. “Mike always faced the challenges of life with grace and humility, and faced this, his final challenge, in the same way. We will miss him terribly.”
With Collins’ death, only 10 of the 24 humans who have flown into deep space remain alive: Collins’ colleague on the Apollo 11 mission, Buzz Aldrin, as well as Bill Anders, Frank Borman, Charlie Duke, Fred Haise, Jim Lovell, Ken Mattingly, Harrison Schmitt, David Scott, and Tom Stafford.
“Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins. As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module—some called him ‘the loneliest man in history’—while his colleagues walked on the Moon for the first time, he helped our nation achieve a defining milestone,” said NASA’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk. “Whether his work was behind the scenes or on full view, his legacy will always be as one of the leaders who took America’s first steps into the cosmos.”
Collins was born in Rome, Italy, on October 31, 1930. The son of US Army officer James Collins, Michael grew up abroad and in various US states. Following his father and other relatives, Collins attended the US Military Academy at West Point and graduated in 1952. Interested in flight, Collins went on to join the Air Force, where he served as a fighter pilot and a test pilot. He was inspired to become an astronaut after watching the orbital flight of John Glenn in 1962. He was accepted into the third class of astronauts in 1962.
During his first spaceflight, in 1966, Collins served as pilot of the Gemini 10 mission. This successful three-day flight demonstrated the ability of the Gemini spacecraft to dock in low Earth orbit with a target vehicle. Collins performed two spacewalks during the mission. This was one of the final flights of the Gemini program, during which NASA proved out some the techniques it would need to land humans on the Moon.
A few months later, as NASA spooled up for the first Apollo mission—this flight would carry a crew of three astronauts commanded by Gus Grissom into low Earth orbit inside the new capsule—tragedy struck when a fire killed the crew during a ground test. Collins was in Houston at the time and was delegated to bring the news of pilot Roger Chaffee’s death to his wife, Martha Chafee.
Several factors led to the assignment of the crew for Apollo 11, but in the words of Deke Slayton, who was chief of the Astronaut Office during the Apollo Program, “A lot of factors, most of them beyond anybody’s control, but these three guys [were] in the right place at the right time.” As the command module pilot, Collins was responsible for flying the Apollo capsule around the Moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went down to the surface in the lunar module.
After this historic flight, Armstrong became famous as the first human to walk on the Moon. He bore it with dignity and quietly retreated from public life to work as a professor at the University of Cincinnati. He died in 2012 at the age of 92. Aldrin has lived a more public life, battling alcoholism but emerging as a cultural hero and living icon of the Moon program.
By contrast, Collins went on to a career of service, working as director of the National Air and Space Museum as well as other positions. He was a sober and intellectual figure after the Moon landing and was the poet of the mission, writing perhaps the finest astronaut autobiography of the Apollo age, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. For anyone interested in a true accounting of what life was like as an astronaut (and watching two friends go down to the Moon), this book is essential reading.
Collins retired as an astronaut after the Apollo 11 mission and, in doing so turned down a chance to go down to the lunar surface himself. According to Slayton, Collins was his first choice to serve as commander of Apollo 17, which would become the final mission to the Moon. This was even before the launch of Apollo 11. Collins replied by thanking Slayton for the offer, but said he had grown tired of the grind, and if Apollo 11 went well he was planning to step aside. Collins has now finally found a deserved and eternal rest.