Michael Collins, the man known as the “forgotten astronaut” of the Apollo 11 mission, has died at the age of 90.
Unlike Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Collins never walked the moon and stayed behind to pilot the command module as it circled above the lunar surface.
In a statement released on Wednesday, Collins’ family said he passed away peacefully after a long battle with cancer.
“We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today, after a valiant battle with cancer,” the statement said. “He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side. 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. Yet we also know how lucky Mike felt to have lived the life he did. We will honor his wish to celebrate, not mourn that life. Please join us in fondly remembering his sharp wit, his quiet sense of purpose, and his wise perspective, gained from looking back at Earth from the vantage of space and gazing across calm waters from the deck of his fishing boat.”
Family Statement on Passing of Astronaut Michael Collins pic.twitter.com/6OAw7CzFaz
— Michael Collins (@AstroMCollins) April 28, 2021
As reported by NPR, NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk hailed Collins as a man whose legacy will forever be shaped by his journey to the moon.
“NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential,” said 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.”
CNN profiled Collins early life and his journey to become an astronaut:
Collins came from a military family. His father and brother were US Army generals, and his uncle was the Army chief of staff. He decided to “sneak off” to the US Air Force instead.
In 1961, Collins was a student at the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. That year, President John F. Kennedy said that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and return him safely to Earth, Collins remembered vividly.
Collins and about 80% of his peers were “gung-ho,” he recalled. NASA and the idea of the Mercury and Gemini programs, which set up for the Apollo program, were attractive, and the space program seemed like a promotion. The other 20% would rather fly and test new airplanes for the Air Force rather than getting “locked up in a capsule and shot off like a round of ammunition,” Collins said.
Collins was selected as part of the third class of astronauts in 1963. His first mission was Gemini 10. His second was Apollo 11.
The six years between 1963 and 1969 flew by. Collins and his fellow astronauts worked hard, rising early and neglecting breaks on the weekends. They rarely saw their families and flew from coast to coast, visiting facilities where parts of the spacecraft were being manufactured.
As Aldrin and Armstrong spent a little under 22 hours on the lunar surface, Collins became famously known as the “loneliest man in humanity” as he orbited the dark side of the moon and lost contact with Mission Control. “The fact that I was … out of communications, rather than that being a fear, that was a joy because I got Mission Control to shut up for a little while. Every once in a while,” he told NPR in 2016.