Michael Collins, an astronaut who flew on Apollo 11, the first mission to land on the moon back in 1969, has passed away. He was 90 years-old.
Collins’ death was confirmed by his family, who said he died on Wednesday after a battle with cancer.
“Mike always faced the challenges of life with grace and humility, and faced this, his final challenge, in the same way,” his family said in a statement. “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 for us to celebrate, not mourn, that life.”
Family Statement on Passing of Astronaut Michael Collins pic.twitter.com/6OAw7CzFaz
— Michael Collins (@AstroMCollins) April 28, 2021
Collins was the third astronaut who flew to the moon on that famous mission along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, according to NPR. Unlike them, however, he did not walk on the moon, and instead stayed in the module to pilot it as it circled above, which has led to him often being called the “forgotten astronaut.”
NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk spoke out to pay tribute to Collins, saying that America has lost a true pioneer.
“NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential,” Jurczyk said. “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.”
As Collins orbited the moon above Armstrong and Aldrin, he could only speak with the controllers half the time, as he lost communication with them whenever he was on the back side of the room. While some felt sorry for him for this, dubbing Collins the loneliest person in humanity, he did not see it this way himself.
“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,” Collins said in a 2016 interview. “Every once in a while.”
“It’s a shame that when people are asked, ‘Can you name the Apollo 11 crew?’ Mike Collins is normally the name that doesn’t come to mind,” said Francis French, space historian who has written many books on the space program. “Because in many ways he was the keystone of the mission. He was the one who really knew how to fly the spacecraft solo (the only person who flew a spacecraft solo in the entire mission) and the only one who could get all three of them home.”
“And if something went wrong with the lunar lander that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were in,” French added. “Michael Collins had the engine that could try to rendezvous with somewhere around the moon and rescue them.”
Born in Rome, Italy to a military family that was stationed there, Collins dreamed of going to space even as a child.
“I used to joke that NASA sent me to the wrong place, to the moon,” he once said, “because I think Mars is a more interesting place. It’s a place I always read about as a child.”
Collins never went to space again after, as he left NASA the next year to join the State Department. Throughout the rest of his life, he never dwelled on never walking on the moon.
“As an astronaut I always thought I had the best job in the world, and I still think that,” he said, “but for me when it was over it was over.”
Even so, Collins would often look up at the moon and think, “‘Oh my God! I’ve been there!’ I was up there, you see. Kind of takes me by surprise despite all these years.”