Michael Collins, ‘the loneliest man in history’ and Apollo 11 astronaut dies at 90

The crew of Apollo 11: from left to right, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.

Michael Collins, an Apollo 11 astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), passed away this past Wednesday at age 90 after a battle with cancer. Collins was affectionately referred to as ‘the loneliest man on the planet’ for being the command module pilot that flew a solo mission in space while his better-known colleagues, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, set foot on the moon for the first time in history.

Portrait of Michael Collins in a spacesuit taken on April 16, 1969, three months before the launch of Apollo 11. Public Domain.

‘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,’ said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk in a statement.

Collins was born on October 31, 1930, in Rome, Italy. His father, a U.S. army officer serving as military attache at the time of his birth, would inspire him to become a fighter pilot and test pilot with the Air Force. It was Jon Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, that would inform Collins’ next career move. He joined NASA in 1963 and embarked on the Gemini 10 spaceflight in 1966, where he would break records with two spacewalks.

The mission that defined his career was Apollo 11, which made history on July 20, 1969, when Aldrin and Armstrong landed on the moon. One day later, they would take their first steps on the lunar surface, collecting matter to bring back to Earth, while Collins remained in orbit flying the Command Module Columbia. When a NASA press officer quipped to reporters ‘not since Adam has any human known such solitude,’ Collins defended himself.

‘I would enjoy a perfectly enjoyable hot coffee, I had music if I wanted to,’ he said at a 50th anniversary event in 2019. ‘Good old Command Module Columbia had every facility that I needed, and it was plenty big and I really enjoyed my time by myself instead of being terribly lonely.’ Naturally humble, Collins also downplayed his groundbreaking accomplishments. In a 2009 interview with NASA he referred to them as ’90 per cent blind luck’ and that astronauts should not be celebrated as heroes.

The Apollo 11 crew went on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Collins turned down an offer to command his own Moon mission, opting to become the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. He went on to accept the title of first director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and authored numerous books on space exploration including his autobiography ‘Carrying the Fire.’ He retired in Florida with his wife, Patricia, who passed away in 2014 and is survived by his three children.