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Michael Collins


The United State’s journey to the Moon was an unparalleled feat. A goal set by President John F. Kennedy, in September of 1962 on the field at Rice University, and pursued by thousands of bureaucrats, doctors, administrators, specialists, engineers, and of course astronauts that faced off against the mighty Soviet Space Program in the Space Race. Throughout the 1960s, NASA put forth the Mercury and Gemini programs, setting the stage for the Moon, and the Apollo missions. As Apollo 11 traveled 240,000 Miles to the Lunar surface, and Commander Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their historical extravehicular activity on July 20,1969, one man remained on board of the Command Module orbiting around the Moon. Michael Collins was tasked with the unglamorous job of remaining on board, but he humbly accepted this important task before returning to Earth as an American hero. Sadly, after years of battling cancer,  Michael Collins died at the age of 90 on April 28, 2021. With his name etched in the history books forever, Collins’ work before, during, and after his years in the astronaut corps were memorable and honorable and America has lost another great space pioneer. 

Collins was born in Rome, Italy on October 31, 1930 where according to NPR his father was stationed due to his service in the United States Army. Due to his father’s service, he was constantly moving throughout the country and the world, before he eventually attended the United States Military Academy at West Point graduating in 1952. Rather than joining the Army as an officer, he opted to join the newly formed United States Air Force. He became a fighter pilot flying F-86 Sabres in Europe before becoming a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he flew a variety of new and experimental aircraft. Following the success of the Mercury program, Collins applied to be a NASA astronaut and was selected in the third astronaut class in 1963. His first mission was in July of 1966 when he flew on Gemini 10 along with astronaut John Young. The Gemini 10 flight consisted of various experiments, including docking the Gemini spacecraft with an Agena target vehicle, and two EVAs by Michael Collins. Gemini 10 was a tremendous success and helped to set the stage for NASA’s journey to the Moon. 

Michael Collins posing for an Apollo 11 photo. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Apollo 11 was a culmination of NASA’s hard work and scientific achievement throughout the 1960s. Though it is Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who are often remembered for their first steps on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, it was Collins who remained on the command module for twenty-two hours, orbiting around the Moon to rendezvous with Armstrong and Aldrin once they took off from the Moon on the Lunar Module known as the “Eagle.”  

“If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side,” said Michael Collins. “I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars — and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void.”

Though Collins is probably the least remembered of the Apollo 11 crew he had a very important and stressful job while alone in the Command Module, tasked with his own experiments, contingencies if something was to go wrong with Armstrong and Aldrin, and the responsibility of piloting them back home. The Apollo 11 mission was a tremendous success and a phenomenal American achievement.

Collins left NASA in 1970 and became the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs under Secretary of State William P. Rogers. In 1971 he became the director for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum where he oversaw the building of the museum. He also fulfilled his dream of writing as he published his autobiography Carrying the Fire in 1974 which discussed his exploits in the NASA program and his firsthand accounts of the Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 missions.

The passing of Michael Collins is a reminder of the great men and women who were once the figureheads of American space exploration and scientific achievement. Collins life is a testament to continuing to pursue one’s passion and to take advantage of life’s opportunities. 

View of the “Eagle” from Collins perspective. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

“NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential,” said NASA 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. And his spirit will go with us as we venture toward farther horizons.” 




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