Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins dies from cancer at 90

Michael Collins, one of the three US astronauts on the historic Apollo 11 lunar mission, passed away on April 28, 2021.

Collins died in the United States, after a valiant battle with cancer. He was 90.

Comprising Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission was the first manned mission to the Moon.

Aldrin, 91, is now the only surviving member of the Apollo 11 mission.

Saturn V launch vehicle

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins launched into space on July 16, 1969, on a mega Saturn V rocket.

Four days later Collins remained in lunar orbit as command module pilot while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the Moon’s surface in a lunar module.

On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans in history to step onto and walk on the surface of the Moon.

Michael Collins
Michael Collins was famously described as ‘the loneliest man in history’. Credit: NASA

After the crew’s safe return to Earth from their historic Moon mission and the ensuing celebrations in the US and around the world Collins missed much of the public adulation that was heaped on Armstrong and Aldrin.

Not that Collins seemed to mind so much.

A plaque left on the Moon’s surface as part of the Apollo 11 mission said: ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’

It was signed jointly by Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and US President Richard M. Nixon –

NASA reacts

Reacting to Collins’ passing, Steve Jurczyk, acting NASA Administrator, said: “Today [April 28, 2021] the nation [United States] lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins.

“As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module – some called him ‘the loneliest man in history’ – while his colleagues walked on the Moon for the first time, he helped our nation [United States] achieve a defining milestone.

“He also distinguished himself in the Gemini Programme and as an Air Force [US] pilot. Michael remained a tireless promoter of space,” Jurczyk added.

Jurczyk continued: “NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential.

“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,” said Jurczyk.

Michael Collins
(L-R) Neil Armstrong (Commander); Michael Collins (Command Module Pilot); and Buzz Aldrin (Lunar Module Pilot). Credit: NASA

In a statement, Collins’ family said: “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.”

Collins was born on October 31, 1930 in Rome, Italy.

Graduation milestones

He graduated from Saint Albans School in Washington, DC, and graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1952.

He was a US Air Force fighter pilot and from 1959 to 1963 served as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Collins was a member of the third group of NASA astronauts, selected in October 1963.

His first space flight was as pilot of Gemini 10, a three-day mission launched on July 18, 1966.

Michael Collins
US President Richard Nixon welcomes the Apollo 11 astronauts after their historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Confined to the Mobile Quarantine Facility are (L-R) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Apollo 11 splashed down on July 24, 1969, southwest of Hawaii. Credit: NASA

The flight, commanded by John Young, set an altitude record.

The rocket of an Agena target-docking vehicle with which they had docked boosted them into an altitude of 476 miles.

They later rendezvoused with a second Agena craft.

Collins became the third US spacewalker when he retrieved a micrometeorite detection device from that Agena.

Including the Apollo 11 mission, Collins logged 266 hours in space.

He also served as capsule communicator for Apollo 8, relaying information between mission control in Houston and the crew.

On retirement

Collins retired from the US Air Force as a major general.

He left NASA in 1970 and became US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs.

In 1971 he joined the Smithsonian Institution as director of the National Air and Space Museum.

He became vice president of LTV Aerospace and Defense in 1980.

He resigned from that post in 1985 to start his own company.

He was also an independent consultant,  writing and lecturing about space.

Collins wrote several books: ‘Carrying the Fire’ in 1974, ‘Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places’ in 1976, ‘Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space’ in 1988 and ‘Mission to Mars’ in 1990.

Collins received several US decorations and awards, including the Presidential Medal for Freedom, the Robert J. Collier Trophy, the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy and the Harmon International Trophy.

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