On July 20, 1969, eight years after President John F. Kennedy pledged to land a man on the lunar surface and return him safely to Earth, astronaut Michael Collins sat alone in the command module Columbia. He was floating 60 miles above what he later called the “withered, sun-seared peach pit” of the moon.
A lander carrying his fellow Apollo 11 crewmen, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, sped away from the main craft, en route to fulfilling Kennedy’s goal.
“You cats take it easy,” Collins radioed to his crew mates.
While Armstrong and Aldrin took their giant leap for mankind, in Armstrong’s memorable phrase, Collins circled the moon alone, keeping the command module going and running through the 117-page list of contingencies he had prepared in the event anything went awry.
He was a quarter of a million miles from home – farther than any traveler had ever gone on his own – without even radio communication to tether him to the rest of humanity. The moon’s bulk blocked Earth from view and cut off contact with mission control for large portions of his orbit.
“Not since Adam has any human known such solitude,” NASA public affairs officer Douglas Ward remarked to reporters at the time.
The diffident Collins, who died April 28 at age 90, later brushed off the comparison to the biblical first man, but he admitted to feeling petrified. In his 17 years as a fighter pilot, test pilot and astronaut, no flight had worried him as much as the lunar lander’s 3 1/2-hour trip to reunite with the Apollo 11 command module.
“My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter,” he wrote in his 1974 memoir, “Carrying the Fire.” He had resolved not to commit suicide if Armstrong and Aldrin didn’t make it, but he knew that being the mission’s sole survivor would make him “a marked man for life.”
That foreboding never came to pass. All three crew members were present for Apollo 11’s triumphant splashdown in the Pacific and the subsequent victory tour. At its close, three weeks later in Los Angeles, they were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“His contribution to this great undertaking,” each man’s citation medal read, “will be remembered so long as men wonder and dream and search for truth on this planet and among the stars.”
That was not always true of Collins, whose name never gained the universal recognition of Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s.
This was partly a function of personality. He had stayed clear of the rivalries and showdowns that marked life at Johnson Space Center in Houston – including the reported bitterness between Armstrong and Aldrin over who would get to set foot on the moon first. After their Apollo mission, when Armstrong turned reclusive and Aldrin struggled with alcoholism, Collins thrived outside the glare of publicity.
He had the deep respect of those who understood what his mission entailed. The pioneering transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh, who would later write the foreword to “Carrying the Fire,” sent a letter to Mr. Collins after the moon landing lauding his role in the mission.
“I watched every minute of the walk-out, and it certainly was of indescribable interest. But it seems to me you had an experience of in some ways great profoundity,” Lindbergh wrote. He went on to compare Collins’s solitude to his own solo flight across the Atlantic: “I felt closer to you in orbit than to your fellow astronauts I watched walking on the surface of the moon.”
Collins went on to become an eloquent advocate for space exploration, in his many books and as founding director of Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. He was an inductee of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, among other honors. He retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1982 at the rank of major general.
Michael Collins was born in Rome on Oct. 31, 1930, to a distinguished military family. His father, Army Maj. Gen. James Lawton Collins, had long served as an aide-de-camp to Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.
The elder Collins was a military attache in Italy when his son was born. His father’s brother, Gen. Joseph Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, was Army chief of staff during the Korean War. Michael’s older brother, James L. Collins Jr., was an Army brigadier general and military historian.
Collins grew up following his father on assignments to Oklahoma, New York City and Puerto Rico, among other places, before settling in Washington after America’s entry into World War II.
He graduated in 1948 from the private St. Albans School, where classmates nicknamed him “Scarecrow” for his tall and trim frame. He was an intense athletic competitor and proved more adept on the playing fields there and at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., than in the classroom.
After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1952, he joined the Air Force – pointedly, a branch of the military where he did not have family. He was drawn to test piloting because of what he called the thrill of flying planes no one ever has before.
Described as reserved and levelheaded, but with flashes of wry wit, he once told Life magazine of his work as a test pilot: “People think we’re baked in heat chambers and whirled in centrifuges until our eyeballs fall out. There is little of that. Essentially, we’re learning an incredibly complex array of machines – and learning what to do if some of it doesn’t go as advertised.”
Collins said he would have been content to remain in the Air Force, had it not been for astronaut John Glenn’s history-making solo orbit around Earth in 1962. Whereas most of the great barriers in flight had already been broken, he said, space travel offered countless opportunities to be first at something.
He immediately applied when NASA announced that it was looking for candidates to supplement Glenn’s original astronaut class. He was accepted on his second attempt. In addition to the wide-ranging scientific and survival training all astronauts go through, he was assigned to work with the engineers developing pressure suits for spacewalks. The mission patch that adorned his, Aldrin’s and Armstrong’s suits – an eagle holding an olive branch over the pockmarked lunar surface – was largely his design.
Before his trek to the moon, Collins orbited Earth in 1966 as the pilot for Gemini 10. The three-day mission saw him and crew mate John Young, a spaceflight veteran, establish a new orbital altitude record and rendezvous with two unmanned Agena target vehicles. In addition, Collins became the first astronaut in history to journey outside his spacecraft twice.
A slipped disk in 1968 nearly derailed his astronaut career, but Collins recovered from surgery in time to be included on the Apollo 11 roster. He freely acknowledged that his was not the best job on the mission but said that he didn’t resent being confined to the command module.
“This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two,” he wrote in “Carrying the Fire.”
He might have had another chance at a moon walk – according to NASA’s rotation system for crew selection, he was slated to be named commander of Apollo 17, which would take flight three years later and was the last mission to put men on the moon.
But in 1970, chafing from the constant attention and reluctant to undergo three more years of the exhausting physical training required for astronauts, Collins opted to retire from NASA. “My mind-set was ‘It’s over, we did it,’ ” he explained in a 2015 talk at MIT.
Collins lived in Marco Island, Fla., according to his daughter, Ann Starr, where she and her sister cared for him for the past year and a half. He had cancer and died at a hospice facility in Naples, Fla., she said.
Collins’s wife of 56 years, the former Patricia Finnegan, died in 2014. Their son, Michael L. Collins, died in 1993. Besides Starr, of Belmont, Mass., survivors include his daughter Kate Collins of Chicago; a sister; and seven grandchildren.
After leaving NASA, Collins told The New York Times, he was determined to “prevent the rest of my life from being an anticlimax.” He spent a year as assistant secretary for public affairs at the State Department, then was named founding director of the National Air and Space Museum, overseeing its opening in time for the nation’s bicentennial festivities. In the late 1970s, he was undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution before moving into the directorship of a private aerospace and defense company. He later ran an aerospace consulting firm.
In several books, including “Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places” (1976) and “Mission to Mars” (1990), Collins was also an eloquent advocate for continued space exploration. In a New York Times book review, journalist and space flight author Henry S.F. Cooper Jr. said of “Carrying the Fire” that “no other person who has flown in space has captured the experience so vividly.”
Although Collins never got to leave his footprints on the moon, one small spot there bears his name: a tiny impact crater in the Sea of Tranquility, about 15 miles from the Apollo 11 landing site.
That was about as much recognition as he wanted. In a 2009 interview with NASA, Collins expressed irritation with “the adulation of celebrities and the inflation of heroism.”
“Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don’t count astronauts among them,” he said. “We work very hard; we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do . . . Celebrities? What nonsense.”
He sounded grumpy, the interviewer remarked.
“No, no, lucky!” Collins replied. “Usually, you find yourself either too young or too old to do what you really want, but consider: Neil Armstrong was born in 1930. Buzz Aldrin was born in 1930, and Mike Collins, 1930. We came along at exactly the right time. We survived hazardous careers and were successful in them. But in my own case at least, it was 10 percent shrewd planning and 90 percent blind luck. Put Lucky on my tombstone.”