When Commanders Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins (yes there was a third guy, look it up!) left Earth, they were engineers, test pilots, and property of the U.S. government. When they returned to Earth, they were heroes, and they were totally unprepared for the stardom that followed.
Esquire has a great article out focused on Michael Collins, the forgotten third man who orbited the moon in the Command Module while Aldrin and Armstrong bounced along its surface. While Collins certainly has his place in history, he was never the household name that Aldrin and Armstrong became. And Collins thinks that is just as well, because while the flight to the moon was fraught with peril, it was their reception back home that almost broke Aldrin and Armstrong. From Esquire:
Aldrin battled depression and alcohol addiction after his return from space. In the 1970s, he went through two divorces, lost his fortune, and ended up working at a Cadillac dealership in Beverly Hills. He eventually embraced his role in pop culture, making appearances on The Big Bang Theory and Dancing With the Stars.
Armstrong never warmed to his fame. He retired from NASA a year after Apollo 11, and became a professor at the University of Cincinnati. His marriage fell apart after he retreated into work following the death of his young daughter, according to his biographer. He avoided conversations about his time in NASA, according to reports, and was protective over how his likeness was used, becoming irate when a barber saved strands of his hair to sell for thousands of dollars, The Telegraph reported. Armstrong died in 2012 at age 82.
In 1999, on the 30th anniversary of the moon landing, Aldrin told The Guardian that the men couldn’t handle their movie star treatment. Armstrong, who only attended celebrations for the 30th anniversary under pressure from NASA, later said he was“profoundly disappointed that the whole point of the Apollo 11 mission seems to have been lost, dissipated and buried in hucksterism and other attendant nonsense.” Armstrong died in 2012 at 82 years old.
Michael Collins, however, survived not only Apollo 11, but the fame that followed. While I think he had just as jaw-dropping a duty in the moon mission, remaining without contact and totally out of view of any fellow humans for 47 minutes at a time while grappling with what he would do if something went wrong on the moon’s surface, he didn’t actually get to touch down on the moon. Even today, his name isn’t nearly as well recognized as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, but his marriage stayed intact and he worked several high-level jobs afterwards, such as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in 1970 and director, then under secretary at the Smithsonian Museum. Missing out on actually landing on the moon doesn’t even seem to bother Collins.
“I honestly felt really privileged to be on Apollo 11, to have one of those three seats,” Collins said in a NASA oral history. “Did I have the best of the three? No. But was I pleased with the one I had? Yes! And I have no feelings of frustration or rancor or whatever. I’m very, very happy about the whole thing.”