Heroes of Space: Michael Collins

On the 49th anniversary of Apollo 11’s launch to the Moon, we profile the man who experienced one of the most profound bittersweet moments of all time


Michael Collins was born In Rome, Italy, on 30 October 1930. He moved to Washington D.C. and graduated from St. Albans School, and in 1952 he received a bachelor of science degree at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York. Like Neil Armstrong he served as both a fighter pilot and experimental test pilot for the US Air Force, logging over 4,200 hours of flying time.

He was selected among the third group of astronauts by NASA along with Buzz Aldrin in October 1963. His first mission into space was as the pilot on the three-day Gemini 10 mission, launch on 18 July 1966, during which he set a world altitude record and completed two spacewalks.

Following this mission he was selected as the Command Module pilot for Apollo 11, which meant he remained in orbit around the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the surface. In a series of questions and answers prepared for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s mission in 2009, Collins alluded to a feeling of worry for his crewmates rather than loneliness as he became the first human to orbit the Earth alone. “Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface,” Collins wrote while on board Apollo 11’s Command Module.

Collins took this shot of his crewmates returning from the surface of the Moon on 21 July 1969.

As NASA wanted an experienced pilot left on board the Command Module during the mission it was Collins who was “promoted” to be the lone human in orbit around the moon, a situation he had mixed feelings about. “Since [other astronauts] had not flown [a spacecraft before], I was it. Slowly it sunk in. No Lunar Module for me, no EVA, no fancy flying, no need to practice in helicopters anymore,” said Collins.

However, Collins has often been quick to distance himself from praise for his role in the mission. “We survived hazardous careers and we 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.”

In 1970 he left NASA and became the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs before joining the Smithsonian Institution as Director of the National Air and Space Museum. He left in 1978 and after serving a short stint of two years as Under Secretary at the Smithsonian Institution he started his own firm and wrote several books, becoming an aerospace consultant and writer today.

Images courtesy of NASA.

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