Michael Collins, Who Orbited Moon on Apollo 11, Dies at 90

Michael Collins, the U.S. astronaut who in 1969 experienced an extreme of human solitude by orbiting Earth’s moon by himself as his Apollo 11 crew mates were taking man’s first steps on it, has died. He was 90.

He died Wednesday, according to NASA’s website. No cause was given.

As pilot of the command module Columbia, Collins kept a 28-hour vigil in orbit 60-plus miles from the moon’s surface as Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin descended in the lunar module Eagle, landed and explored the moon’s surface.

Michael Collins, Who Orbited Moon on Apollo 11, Dies at 90

Although crews aboard two previous Apollo missions also orbited the moon, no one had spent as much time circling the lunar surface in isolation as Collins.

“Not since Adam has a human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing during the 47 minutes of each lunar revolution, when he is behind the moon with no one to talk to except his tape recorder,” NASA public affairs officer Douglas K. Ward said on July 21, 1969, the second day of Armstrong and Aldrin’s journey to the moon surface.

At a press conference two weeks before liftoff, Collins had been asked a version of the question he’d face often: How would it feel to get so close to the moon without setting foot on it? “I’m going 99.9% of the way there,” he replied, “and that suits me just fine.”

In his 1974 memoir, “Carrying the Fire,” Collins said he enjoyed his time alone in space.

Michael Collins, Who Orbited Moon on Apollo 11, Dies at 90

“I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude,” he wrote. “It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon. I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be 3 billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God-knows-what on this side.”

Many Emotions

He said he felt not fear, or loneliness, but “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.”

After the mission, Collins received a letter from Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator who had been the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Lindbergh wrote that while he had followed Armstrong and Aldrin’s walks on the moon with great interest, “it seems to me that you had an experience of in some ways greater profundity. You have experienced an aloneness unknown to man before.”

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said Wednesday, “Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration.”

Collins was born on Oct. 31, 1930, in Rome, the son of a U.S. Army general, James Collins, whose job as a State Department military attache gave the family five different homes by the time Collins was 10.

He graduated from St. Albans School in Washington and, in 1952, from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, he tested jet fighters and other aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Joins NASA

Selected in October 1963 as part of NASA’s third group of astronauts, Collins was the pilot for Gemini X, a three-day mission in July 1966 mission that advanced NASA’s capabilities at rendezvous and docking and included a 90-minute spacewalk.

In 1968 he underwent surgery to repair a herniated cervical disc, forcing his removal from the crew of Apollo 9. Just after Collins was restored to flight status, Armstrong and Deke Slayton, the director of flight crew operations, chose him to man Apollo 11’s command module.

Even in training, “Mike Collins had it tougher” than Armstrong and Aldrin, Slayton wrote in his autobiography. “His training pretty much required him to be alone. If something went wrong, he didn’t have anybody else to blame or complain to.”

Collins sketched out, with help from a National Geographic book on birds, what became the design for Apollo 11’s official mission patch: a bald eagle about to land on the moon, an olive branch in its talons.

Lunar Module

At 3:47 p.m. on July 20, 1969, Collins reported to mission control that the Eagle, carrying Armstrong and Aldrin, had separated and was on its way to the surface. “Everything’s going just swimmingly -- beautiful!” Collins said.

His training included preparations for 18 different types of emergency rendezvous operations to rescue Armstrong and Aldrin, if necessary.

“My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone,” he later recalled thinking. “If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.”

Collins was spared any such agonizing when Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off successfully from the moon’s surface on July 21. The Eagle, with Armstrong at the helm, and the Columbia, piloted by Collins, reconnected in orbit, though not before a frightening few moments of misalignment that Collins reported as, “all hell broke loose.”

Armstrong died in 2012.

Smithsonian Job

After leaving NASA in January 1970, Collins briefly served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs in Richard Nixon’s administration. He then became director of the National Air and Space Museum and later undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. From 1980 to 1985 he was vice president of LTV Aerospace & Defense Co.

He and his wife, Patricia, had two daughters and a son.

“Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don’t count astronauts among them,” Collins said when answering questions in 2009 as NASA marked the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. “We worked very hard, we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do.”

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