Michael Collins, the witty “forgotten” astronaut of NASA’s legendary Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, died of cancer on Wednesday, his family said. An icon of space exploration and an eloquent storyteller (who, arguably, had the best sense of humor among the Apollo 11 crew), Collins passionately advocated for further exploration of other worlds. Astronauts, NASA officials, and others in the space community who are heeding his advocacy mourned his death today.
Collins was the Columbia command module pilot who stayed in orbit around the Moon in 1969 while his crew mates, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, descended to the lunar surface and became the first two humans to set foot on another world. Aldrin, now the only living Apollo 11 astronaut, mourned his fellow crewmate in a tweet.
“Dear Mike,” Aldrin said, “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. #Apollo11”
After the Apollo 11 mission, Collins was given an informal nickname, the “forgotten astronaut,” and went on to write several books, including a 1974 memoir, Carrying the Fire, where he relived the feeling of utter loneliness as his Columbia module flew into the remote darkness of the Moon’s far side.
“I like the feeling,” he wrote in his memoir. “Outside my window I can see stars — and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void.” He called his perch in the capsule his “beautiful little domain” in a 2019 interview with The New York Times, adding “It was all mine. I was the emperor, the captain of it, and it was quite commodious. I had warm coffee, even.”
Collins had a long career, even beyond NASA. During his 90 years on (and off) Earth, he also served as an Air Force colonel, head of the State Department’s public affairs bureau, and director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “He helped shepherd the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum from a rickety old hut on the National Mall to its present premises,” said Tom Ellis, a teaching fellow at the London School of Economics who studies space history. His stint as the museum’s director, Ellis said, “demonstrated that he was a rare spacefarer who truly understood just how ‘historic’ the space age was. Someone whose post-space career was as impressive as his time as an astronaut.”
NASA’s acting administrator Steve Jurczyk said Collins was “a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential,” citing a famous quote from the astronaut: “Exploration is not a choice, really, it’s an imperative.” Jurczyk added: “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.”
NASA is investing billions into its Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the Moon and establish a long-term presence that can inform future missions to Mars. The space agency signed a $2.9 billion contract with SpaceX this month to deliver the first crew of astronauts to the lunar surface since the last Apollo Moon mission in 1972. Past attempts to build on the Apollo program’s legacy and return to the Moon were squashed by shifting presidential priorities — but the Artemis program, started in 2019 by the Trump administration, won embrace by the Biden administration as well, making a crewed return more likely.
“We will continue Carrying the Fire, Mike.”
Pam Melroy, a retired NASA astronaut of three shuttle missions and President Biden’s nominee for NASA Deputy Administrator, tweeted: “So, so sad at the passing of my favorite astronaut, @AstroMCollins. A hero just outside the spotlight. We will continue Carrying the Fire, Mike.”
Mark Geyer, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, NASA’s astronaut HQ, said “many people here at JSC will remember his wit, humor, and their interactions with him with both admiration and affection.” Geyer recalled Collins’ visit to JSC in 2019, during the 50th Apollo 11 anniversary: “Mike said he primarily remembers not having time to relax and enjoy the view for long, but in the moments when he did he look out his window at Earth, he realized how delicate it was.”
In a statement, President Biden said Collins “lived a life of service to our country” who “both wrote and helped tell the story of our nation’s remarkable accomplishments in space.”
“From his vantage point high above the Earth, he reminded us of the fragility of our own planet, and called on us to care for it like the treasure it is,” Biden said. “Our prayers are with General Collins’ family. Godspeed, Mike.”