Michael Collins: Apollo 11 pilot and ‘loneliest man ever’ dies aged 90

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Michael Collins

Astronaut Michael Collins, July 1969

JSC/NASA

Michael Collins, one of the three crew members of the first manned mission to the moon, has died at the age of 90.

Known as the “the loneliest man in history”, Collins was the pilot of the Apollo 11 mission, which in 1969 put humans on the moon for the first time. Although he never became a household name like his crew mates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Collins’ contribution to the mission was just as important.

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As his colleagues Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface of the moon, Collins piloted the command module Columbia, spending close to 28 hours alone in orbit.

“Not since Adam has any human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing during this 47 minutes of each lunar revolution,” said the mission log. Recalling the events in a 2019 NPR interview, Collins said of his time alone in space, “I don’t think loneliness really comes into the equation, except it seemed to in the minds of the press at the time.”

Steve Jurczyk, acting NASA administrator, paid tribute to Collins in a statement saying: “Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins.”

Born in Rome in 1930, Collins graduated from the US Military Academy in 1952, going on to join the US Air Force and later becoming a test pilot, before being selected by NASA as part of Astronaut Group 3 in 1963. Prior to the Apollo 11 mission, Collins flew in space on the Gemini 10 mission in 1966, becoming the fourth man to walk in space.

Collins and his Apollo 11 crew mates didn’t fly in space again after the 1969 mission. After retiring from NASA, Collins worked in government and was the director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC from 1971-1978.

Later in life, Collins advocated for humans going to Mars. “Sometimes I think I flew to the wrong place,” he said in 2009.

“As celestial bodies go, the moon is not a particularly interesting place, but Mars is, and Mars is the closest thing to Earth’s sister that we’ve found so far.”

Aldrin, now 91, said on Twitter, “Dear Mike, Wherever you have been or will be, you will always have the Fire to Carry us deftly to new heights and to the future. We will miss you. May you Rest In Peace.”

In a recent message, sent via Twitter to commemorate Earth Day, Collins said, “I am certain, if everyone could see the Earth floating just outside their windows, every day would be #EarthDay.”

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