Astronaut Michael Collins, a member of the Apollo 11 crew that made history when Neil Armstrong and Col. Buzz Aldrin took mankind’s first steps on the moon, died on Wednesday at 90 years old.
According to a statement from Collins’ family, shared on Twitter, the pioneering astronaut passed away after a long battle with cancer. The family’s entire statement read:
“We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today, after a valiant battle with cancer. 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.”
On July 20, 1969, Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Collins piloted the spacecraft Columbia alone 60 miles above the lunar surface as the Eagle module carrying his two crewmates touched down on the moon.
Collins lost contact with both Armstrong and Aldrin, as well as NASA, as the spacecraft passed over the moon’s far side in what would become 48 minutes of complete isolation from all of humanity.
“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” he later wrote.
“If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side,” he continued. “I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars — and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void.”
After nearly an hour completely alone, Collins wrote that he suddenly saw a “flash full of sunlight as Columbia swung around the edge of the moon and back into the sunlight around into the dawn. The moon appears quickly, dark, gray and craggy.”
It was then that NASA was able to inform the colonel that Armstrong had confirmed the module touched down safely, radioing the now famous words, “The Eagle has landed.”
Decades later in 2019, Collins recalled the moment for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. “I had this beautiful little domain,” he told The New York Times. “I was the emperor, the captain of it, and it was quite commodious. I had warm coffee, even.”
“I was nervous about getting every syllable of it exactly right, because this was going to be the day,” he remembered. “This was no fooling around. This was it.”
Collins said he carried a packet containing 18 contingency plans if something went wrong and he needed to rescue his crewmates.
“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,” he wrote in his memoir. “If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.”
Born on October 31, 1930, in Rome, Italy, Collins was the member of a distinguished military family. His father, Major General James Lawton Collins, had been an aide to John J. Pershing, who led operations against Pancho Villa in Mexico and then the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. Collins, uncle, General J. Lawton Collins, was a commander in World War II who subsequently served as Army chief of staff in the Korean War. His older brother, Brig. Gen. James Lawton Collins Jr., led an artillery battalion during the D-Day invasion at Utah Beach.
Collins chose the Air Force to avoid any claims of nepotism, and after retiring as a major general in 1982, he authored several books, including “Carrying the Fire,” an autobiography on his experience as an astronaut.
“I have been places and done things you simply would not believe. I feel like saying: I have dangled from a cord a hundred miles up; I have seen the earth eclipsed by the moon, and enjoyed it. I have seen the sun’s true light, unfiltered by any planet’s atmosphere. I have seen the ultimate black of infinity in a stillness undisturbed by any living thing,” he wrote.
“I do have this secret,” he added, “this precious thing, that I will always carry with me.”