The only Apollo 11 astronaut to not set foot on the moon has died after battling cancer at the age of 90.
Michael Collins was famously known as “the loneliest man in humanity” when he stayed behind to pilot the command module during the 22 hours Lance Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent on the moon’s surface. Collins earned the moniker when he lost contact with mission control while orbiting around the dark side of the moon.
“The fact that I was … out of communications, rather than that being a fear, that was a joy because I got Mission Control to shut up for a little while. Every once in a while, “he said in 2016.
Though Collins is often the “forgotten astronaut” of the mission, because he didn’t participate in the moonwalk, he was the most integral figure in the mission.
“It’s a shame that when people are asked, ‘Can you name the Apollo 11 crew?’ Mike Collins is normally the name that doesn’t come to mind,” said space historian Francis French. “Because in many ways he was the keystone of the mission. He was the one who really knew how to fly the spacecraft solo (the only person who flew a spacecraft solo in the entire mission) and the only one who could get all three of them home.”
Collins took two trips to space, first on Gemini 10 in 1966, where he became the fourth person to perform a spacewalk, then during 1969’s Apollo 11 mission, where he became the second person to ever orbit the moon alone.
Collins and his Apollo 11 crewmates were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and he retired from NASA in 1970. He went on to become the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, the director of the National Air and Space Museum, and eventually the undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said Collins was a “true pioneer” in a statement. “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.”
Family Statement on Passing of Astronaut Michael Collins pic.twitter.com/6OAw7CzFaz
— Michael Collins (@AstroMCollins) April 28, 2021