Apollo 11 Astronaut Mike Collins Passes Away

Apollo 11 Astronaut Mike Collins Passes Away

Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins passed away today according to a statement from his family.  His enduring fame was as a NASA astronaut, but that was only a brief part of his impressive career, which included serving as director of the National Air and Space Museum.

Collins died of cancer.  He was 90.

“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.” — Collins Family

A West Point graduate and Air Force pilot, Collins was selected in the third group of NASA astronauts in 1963.  His first spaceflight was Gemini X in 1966 with John Young. They rendezvoused and docked with an Agena target vehicle and used its propulsion system to maneuver into a different orbit where they rendezvoused with a second Agena. Collins performed two spacewalks, recovering an experiment package from the second Agenda during one of them.

Then, on July 16, 1969 he lifted off on his second and most historic mission: Apollo 11.  Collins was the Command Module Pilot who remained in lunar orbit while crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon on July 20.  Armstrong died in 2012. Aldrin is still quite active in the space community and tweeted his condolences.

NASA tweeted a video tribute.

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said “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.”

President Biden also praised Collins for living a life of service to the nation.


Collins graduated from West Point in 1952 and was first an Air Force fighter pilot and from 1959-1963 a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, CA.  He left NASA in 1970, the year after Apollo 11.  In his book Carrying the Fire, he explained there were many factors including that he wanted to move back to Washington, D.C.  The son of Maj. Gen. James Lawton Collins and an Air Force officer himself, he had spent his life moving from one place to another and Washington was “as close to a home town as I will ever have.” Not to mention that “I was offered a job in Washington by the Secretary of State, and personally urged to take it by the President of the United States.”

That job was as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, but a year later Collins decided to join the Smithsonian Institution as director of the National Air and Space Museum, which was undergoing a major expansion. The new building on the National Mall opened in 1976 while he was director and in 1978 he was promoted to Under Secretary of the Smithsonian.  In 1980, he decided to try the private sector and was Vice President of LTV Aerospace and Defense until 1985 when he became an independent consultant.

Carrying the Fire was the first of several books and is the best first-person account of what it took to become an astronaut in that era. Collins hilariously tells the story of not making it the first time he applied and how he improved his chances the second time, then discusses his training and space missions in candid and exciting detail.  Originally published in 1974, it was re-released in 2009 for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing and again in 2019 for the 50th anniversary.

Of Apollo 11, he writes compellingly of what it was like to be alone in the Command Module circling the Moon, especially when he was behind it and completely out of touch with Earth.

Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I knew that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have.

I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contract with the earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon. I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side. I feel it powerfully–not as fear or loneliness–but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. 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; the moon’s presence is defined solely by the absence of stars.

Collins also wrote Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places in 1976, Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space in 1988, and Mission to Mars in 1990.

Among his many, many awards were the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Exceptional Service Award, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Robert J. Collier Trophy and the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy.

Collins’ wife Pat predeceased him in 2014.  They had three children.

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