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Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot on first moon landing, dies at 90

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Apr 28, 2021, 4:20 PM EDT (Updated)

Apollo 11 astronaut and command module pilot Michael Collins passed away on Apr. 28 at the age of 90, NASA confirmed. Collins was most notably a member of NASA's famed moon-landing mission that delivered Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

As Armstong and Aldrin dropped down in the Eagle lander to take Humankind's first historic steps on the Moon, Collins was patiently circling 60 miles above in the Columbia command module. 

“We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today, after a valiant battle with cancer," read a statement from the family. "He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side. 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. We will honor his wish for us to celebrate, not mourn, that life. Please join us in fondly and joyfully remembering his sharp wit, his quiet sense of purpose, and his wise perspective, gained both from looking back at Earth from the vantage of space and gazing across calm waters from the deck of his fishing boat.”

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His lonely vigil on Apollo 11 included keeping their ride home in operational order and going over a 117-page emergency checklist should something dire happen to his colleagues down on the surface preventing their return.

"My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter," Collins wrote in his memoir, "Carrying the Fire," recalling those anxious moments as the lander was finally reunited with Columbia.

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Born on October 30,1930 in Rome, Italy, Collins entered NASA's astronaut program in 1963 as part of the third group selected. He was chosen as the pilot aboard Gemini 10 and first blasted off with fellow astronaut John Young in July of 1966 on a mission that carried out rendezvous and docking procedures with a pair of rocket stages.

Collins conducted two spacewalks on Gemini 10, becoming only the fourth person to exit a spacecraft to work in the cold void of space, and became the first astronaut to ever transfer from one spacecraft to another.

Credit: NASA

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk made today's official comments on the sad passing of Michael Collins:

“Today the nation 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 achieve a defining milestone. He also distinguished himself in the Gemini Program and as an Air Force pilot.

“Michael remained a tireless promoter of space. ‘Exploration is not a choice, really, it’s an imperative,’ he said. Intensely thoughtful about his experience in orbit, he added, ‘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.’

“His own signature accomplishments, his writings about his experiences, and his leadership of the National Air and Space Museum helped gain wide exposure for the work of all the men and women who have helped our nation push itself to greatness in aviation and space. There is no doubt he inspired a new generation of scientists, engineers, test pilots, and astronauts.

“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.”

Credit: NASA

Throughout the years, Collins was often asked about his contributions to the Apollo 11 mission, something he took enormous pride in.

"It's one of the questions I get asked a million times, 'God, you got so close to the moon and you didn't land. Doesn't that really bug you?' It really does not," he said in a 1997 NASA oral history.

"I honestly felt really privileged to be on Apollo 11, to have one of those three seats. I mean, there were guys in the astronaut office who would have cut my throat ear to ear to have one of those three seats. I was very pleased to have one of those three," Collins said. "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."