Michael Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 spacecraft Columbia in 60 miles above the moon orbit while crewmembers Neil Armstrong and Col. Buzz Aldrin were the first men to walk on the lunar surface, died Wednesday at a hospice facility in Naples. Fla. He was 90.
A statement posted on Twitter by Mr. Collins’ family said the cause was cancer.
It was an epic moment of exploration, a moment when the fantasy of science fiction writers became a reality. And when it found out, Lt. Col. Michael Collins of the Air Force was the loneliest man in history.
When the lunar module Eagle, descended from Colombia, landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, Colonel Collins lost contact with his crew members and NASA. His line of communication was blocked when he drove across the moon. Power outages would occur during part of every orbit it would make.
“I am alone now, truly alone, and utterly isolated from every known life,” he wrote as he re-enacted his thoughts for his 1974 memoir, Carrying the Fire.
“If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what’s on this side,” he added. “I like the feeling. I see stars outside my window – and that’s all. Where I know the moon is just a black void. “
After 48 minutes with no human voice, Colonel Collins appeared from the other side of the moon. “My windows suddenly blink with sunlight as Columbia swings around at dawn,” he wrote. “The moon appears fast, dark, gray and rugged.”
Colonel Collins contacted NASA and learned that the lunar module had landed safely after Mr. Armstrong radioed, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Colonel Collins looked into 3,700 mph orbit from Columbia and briefly spotted the lunar module. Before going on their moon walks, he made radio contact with Mr. Armstrong and Colonel Aldrin. (He was too high up to actually see them walking on the surface.)
He also heard President Richard M. Nixon’s phone call to the two men as they stood on the moon and congratulated them on the magnitude of the moment.
In a statement about Colonel Collins on Wednesday, President Biden said: “He may not have received the same fame, but he has been an equal partner reminding our nation of the importance of working together to serve great goals. From his position high above the earth, he reminded us of the fragility of our own planet and urged us to look after it like the treasure that it is. “
Colonel Collins, who began flying in 1952, had raced through the skies as a test pilot, circling the earth 43 times in the Gemini 10 capsule.
In 2019, he remembered his lunar orbit on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. “I had this lovely little domain,” he told the New York Times. “I was the emperor, the captain of it, and it was pretty common. I even had warm coffee. “
He may have been the “third man” that day, but he was busy doing the items on his to-do list. “I was nervous about getting every syllable just right because this was going to be the day,” he recalled. “That wasn’t fooling around. That’s it. “
Colonel Collins was very concerned about the moment the lunar module was about to blast off the moon to dock with Columbia for the return trip to Earth. He knew that if the lander’s ascent engine malfunctioned, Mr. Armstrong and Colonel Aldrin could be stranded on the lunar surface or put into wild orbit.
“What happens if they turn this way, the other way around?” Fifty years later, he noticed that he was carrying a packet of 18 emergency plans for the rescue of his crew members around his neck.
As he wrote about the moment in his memoirs: “My secret horror for the past six months has been leaving her on the moon and returning to earth alone. Now I am within minutes to find out the truth of the matter. If they don’t rise from the surface or fall back in, I won’t commit suicide. I’ll be home in a minute, but I’ll be a marked man for life and I know it. “
The rise from the moon and the docking of Columbia and the lunar lander turned out to be flawless. When the Apollo 11 crew members splashed into the Pacific, they were American heroes.
In a statement on Twitter, Mr. Aldrin, the last surviving member of this crew, wrote: “Dear Mike, wherever you have been or will be, you will always have the fire to skilfully carry us to new heights and into the future. ”
Michael Collins was a member of a distinguished military family.
He was born in Rome on October 31, 1930 when his father, Maj. General James Lawton Collins, had assisted John J. Pershing, General of the Armies, in Mexico and during World War I, was the military attaché at the US Embassy.
Michael was a nephew of General J. Lawton Collins, known as Lightning Joe, a prominent World War II commander who also served as Army Chief of Staff during the Korean War.
Michael’s older brother Brig. General James Lawton Collins Jr. led an artillery battalion ashore in Utah Beach on D-Day and later served as the director of the Army’s military history program.
Michael traveled to Army posts as a child with his father and mother, Virginia (Stewart) Collins; attended St. Albans Prep School in Washington; and graduated from West Point in 1952.
He decided to pursue a career in the Air Force versus the Army in order to avoid evidence of nepotism in future missions. He became a jet fighter pilot and entered the test pilot program at Edwards Air Force Base in California in 1960. He was selected by NASA three years later as part of a third group of astronauts selected to take part in the Apollo mission to the moon.
In July 1966 he teamed up with Cmdr. John W. Young of the Navy on the Gemini 10 three-day mission. They docked on an Agena rocket that had lifted off Cape Canaveral in front of them, then fired their 16,000-pound thrust motor and reached an altitude of 475 miles, the furthest penetration into space anyone had ever reached. Their Gemini spacecraft remained connected to the Agena for more than 38 hours, in the first significant test of the docking technique used by Columbia and Eagle.
The Gemini 10 astronauts held a second rendezvous when they were just inches from another Agena rocket that had remained in space after the Gemini 8 mission. But they did not try to dock on it because the electrical system no longer worked as NASA had expected.
Colonel Collins was the first man to emerge from a spaceship twice in a single mission. He got up waist-high from an open hatch in the Gemini 10 to snap photos of ultraviolet rays emitted by stars, and later went on a space walk to retrieve a scientific device from the side of the Gemini 8 Agena. It was also the first time an astronaut undertook such a journey to reach another object in space.
Gemini 10 almost ran out of fuel before splashing into the Atlantic, but it was a very successful mission.
Colonel Collins left NASA a year after the Apollo 11 mission when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. He became director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in 1971 and, five years later, directed the opening of his building on the National Mall to mark the nation’s bicentenary. He was named secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1978 and vice president of LTV Aerospace and Defense Company in 1980. He later started a Washington-based consulting firm.
He retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1982 as a major general.
Mr. Collins survivors include his daughters – Kate Collins, an actress best known for her long role on the soap opera “All My Children,” and Ann Collins Starr – and seven grandchildren. His wife Patricia (Finnegan) Collins, a social worker, died in 2014. His son Michael also died before him.
Recognition…Charles Krupa / Associated Press
Mr. Collins had a long history of interest in poetry and literature and had a gift for writing about space. In addition to Carrying the Fire, he was the author of Liftoff: The Story of America’s Space Adventures (1988) and described a hypothetical journey in Mission to Mars (1990).
“It’s something new under the sun to find an astronaut who isn’t afraid to express his feelings,” wrote Henry SF Cooper Jr. in his Times review of Carrying the Fire.
In fact, as Mr. Collins attempted to capture the wonder and beauty of space, he wrote in this book, “I’ve been places and done things that are simply not believed. I want to say: I’ve dangled on a string a hundred miles high; I saw the earth darkened by the moon and enjoyed it. I’ve seen the true light of the sun, unfiltered by the atmosphere of a planet. I have seen the ultimate black of infinity in a silence that is not disturbed by any living being.
“I have this secret,” he added, “this precious thing that I will always carry with me.”
Alex Traub contributed to the coverage.