The enduring legacy of Michael Collins, astronaut and chronicler of Apollo 11

The command module pilot on the famous flight to land on the moon will perhaps be best remembered for his unique perspective on the mission.

By Jay Bennett
Published 29 Apr 2021, 10:41 BST
Michael Collins
Command Module (CM) pilot Michael Collins practices in the CM simulator on June 19, 1969, at Kennedy Space Center.
Photograph by NASA

Michael Collins, the astronaut who piloted the command module during the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon, has died at age 90. “We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today, after a valiant battle with cancer,” his family writes in a public statement.

On July 20 and 21, 1969, Collins orbited 69 miles above the surface of the moon while Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin explored the ground below. As the third member of Apollo 11, the man who didn’t walk on the moon, Collins has been called the “forgotten astronaut.” But he would arguably become the most important chronicler of humankind’s first mission to the surface of another world, in part due to his beloved 1974 autobiography Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys.

He also had perhaps the most unique perspective of anyone witnessing the event, watching it not up close on television, but by scanning the lunar surface out his spacecraft window, thinking about “the vicissitudes of my two friends on the moon and their uncertain return path to me.”

Alone for more than 21 hours in the command module Columbia, Collins circled the moon once every two hours. The 38-year-old astronaut would lose communication with any other person whenever he passed beyond the lunar far side, the most distant part of space that humans have yet visited.

“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” Collins later wrote in his autobiography. “I feel this powerfully—not as fear or loneliness—but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.”

After venturing to the moon, Collins became a champion of pushing human space exploration onward to Mars. Collins was a member of the National Geographic Society board of trustees for 24 years, and in 1988, he wrote a story for National Geographic magazine outlining what would be required to reach the red planet.

“I’m not able to put anything tangible on our ability to go to far-off places. I think you have to reach out for the intangibles,” Collins told me during a 2019 interview about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. “I just think humankind has an innate desire to be outward bound, to continue traveling.”

Road to NASA

Born in Rome, Italy, on October 31, 1930, Collins would chart a similar course to the NASA astronaut corps as many of his contemporary spacefarers: flying experimental jets in the military before joining the space agency. His father, James Lawton Collins, was a U.S. Army officer whose career kept his family, including an older brother and two older sisters, moving around the world until they settled in Washington, D.C., after the start of World War II.

After high school, Collins attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York before joining the Air Force and becoming a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. He flew high-performance jets, such as the supersonic Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, conducting test flights as high as 90,000 feet.

His first application to be a NASA astronaut was rejected in 1962. That second cohort instead included three of Collins’ fellow Air Force test pilots, as well as Neil Armstrong, who was a NASA test pilot at Edwards at the time.

“My own failure was, of course, quite a blow, even though I had never really expected to make it,” he wrote later in Carrying the Fire. His rejection letter said that he did not meet the “special requirements of the astronaut program.”

“The special requirements, eh? Well, if I didn’t have them, could I get them?” he wrote in his book. Being a “perpetual optimist,” and noting that two other NASA astronauts were rejected once before being joining the corps, he decided to apply again the next year. This time he was selected for NASA’s Astronaut Group 3, along with fellow Apollo 11 crewmember Buzz Aldrin.

Collins’ first foray into space in 1966 didn’t go exactly as planned. During the Gemini 10 mission with fellow astronaut John Young, Collins ventured outside the Gemini capsule and traversed over to an uncrewed spacecraft known as the Agena Target Vehicle, which NASA had launched to help astronauts practice rendezvous in orbit. However, he initially failed to get a firm grip on the target spacecraft, and he drifted away.

“One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew I was out on the end of a 50-foot umbilical looking back and looking down at John in the open cockpit, the Gemini, and then the Agena,” Collins recounted to me in 2019. “I figured the three of us are all going to be wrapped up in a little ball by this 50-foot umbilical.”

With some effort Collins returned to the Gemini capsule, and the two-astronaut crew safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on July 21, 1966. He would then serve as the capsule communicator, or CAPCOM, in mission control during Apollo 8, the first crewed flight to the moon and back.

He wrote in his autobiography that “watching Apollo 8 carrying men away from the earth for the first time in history” was “an event in many ways more awe-inspiring than landing on the moon.” Shortly after that mission, Collins was selected as the command module pilot for Apollo 11, responsible for flying the spacecraft in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface.

Preserving the history of space exploration

Collins retired from NASA in 1970, but he stayed involved with human space exploration in some way for most of his life. He served as director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum from 1971 to 1978, overseeing the main building’s opening on the National Mall. “Artefacts of his extraordinary life will be displayed at our museum forever,” the museum’s acting director Christopher Browne wrote in a statement.

Gallery: A Celebration in Photographs – 50 favourite images from Apollo 11

Despite the significance of the space suits he wore and the spaceships he flew, perhaps the most important artefact Collins left behind is his book, preserving one of humankind’s greatest adventures. Toward the end of his autobiography, he reflects on how flying to the moon changed his life, and how venturing beyond Earth affects the human perspective.  

“Although I may feel I am the same person, I also feel that I am different from other people,” he writes. “I have been places and done things you simply would not believe.”


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