When we think about the first landing of humans on the moon, we generally think of two names: Neil Armstrong, who took that one small step, and Buzz Aldrin, who unwittingly posed to be MTV’s future mascot. But there was one other Apollo 11 crewmember, a crucial part of the team who never actually walked on the Moon, but without whom Neil and Buzz’ corpses would still be at Tranquility Base to this day. That astronaut was Michael Collins, and today he died at 90.
Collins was born on Halloween of 1930, in the Kingdom of Italy, all of which sounds suitably dramatic for someone who would end up going to the moon. As a kid he moved around a lot with his army dad, and eventually joined the Air Force after graduating West Point.
Air Force led to being a test pilot, which led to Collins’ acceptance into the third class of astronauts. In 1966, Collins made his first spaceflight, on Gemini 10, along with John Young, an astronaut I admire for sneaking a corned beef sandwich onto Gemini 3.
Collins’ Gemini mission involved a docking with the Agena target vehicle. That set up Collins to be America’s third space walker.
When it came time for humanity’s first moon landing, Collins was selected to be the commander of the Apollo command module Columbia, a name Collins himself suggested, despite finding it “a bit pompous” initially.
Collins was responsible for the mothership that brought the Moon walkers to and from the Moon. He monitored the Eagle as it landed and met the lander when it returned to lunar orbit and docked with the Columbia.
For me, what makes Michael Collins such a fascinating figure is that, for a while, he became the absolute loneliest human being in recorded history.
While Aldrin and Armstrong were on the lunar surface, Collins was orbiting the moon in the command module, alone. When that command module slipped behind the moon, breaking radio contact with Earth and the astronauts on the surface, Collins was more isolated than any human has ever been. Physically more distant than ever, out of all communication, truly alone in the cold void of space.
I don’t really know exactly what sort of effect this could have on a person, but Michael Collins was the first human to experience it.
Collins was a thoughtful man who had some wise things to say about humankind and space exploration:
“Exploration is not a choice, really, it’s an imperative.”
I think I’d agree with that. He also considered what was worthy of recording historically, and concluded:
“What would be worth recording is what kind of civilization we Earthlings created and whether or not we ventured out into other parts of the galaxy.”
Collins spoke about seeing the entirety of Earth from space in a powerful, meaningful way, too:
Collins’ family released a statement today about his death:
“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.”
Rest in peace, former loneliest man.