In the annals of space exploration, the name Michael Collins may not shine as brightly as those of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first men to walk on the moon during the historic Apollo 11 mission. However, Michael Collins played a vital role in this monumental achievement, and his legacy deserves recognition. In this article, we delve into the remarkable life and contributions of Michael Collins, who passed away at the age of 90 in April 2021.
Early Life and Military Career
Michael Collins was born on October 31, 1930, in Rome, Italy, to James Collins, a soldier, and Virginia Stewart. His family's military background and peripatetic childhood exposed him to various cultures and environments, shaping his character and preparing him for the challenges of space exploration.
Collins received his education at St Albans boys' school in Washington, DC, and graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1952. Notably, he was in the same class as Ed White, who tragically lost his life in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967. Collins's path led him to the US Air Force, where he received extensive training and gained experience in various aircraft, including the F-86 Sabres.
Joining NASA's Ranks
Collins's journey to becoming an astronaut was not without its challenges. In 1963, he was selected as one of NASA's "New Nine" astronauts, marking a significant turning point in his career. The Gemini program was pivotal in preparing astronauts for the Apollo moonshot. Collins's first venture into space occurred during the Gemini 10 mission in 1966, where he spent 89 minutes on spacewalks, describing the experience as "a motion of stately grace which makes me feel God-like as I stand erect in my sideways chariot, cruising the night sky."
The Apollo 11 Mission
Michael Collins's crowning achievement was his role as the command module pilot for Apollo 11. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 took off from Earth, with Collins responsible for piloting the command module, Columbia. As Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the lunar surface, Collins remained in orbit around the moon, completely out of contact with ground control for 48 minutes during each orbit. His solitude in space, often referred to as "the most solitary human in the universe," speaks to his unwavering dedication to the mission.
During this historic mission, Collins meticulously executed tasks such as navigation, guidance, and control. He even humorously described himself as "the owner of the leaky plumbing" – a testament to his humility and wit. Apollo 11's success was not just a leap in history but also a step in human evolution. The entire world watched in awe as the astronauts made history.
Legacy and Contributions
Following the success of Apollo 11, Michael Collins decided to step away from space exploration, but his legacy continued to shine. He retired from the US Air Force as a colonel and briefly served as an assistant secretary of state under President Richard Nixon. Subsequently, he became the director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and received numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.
Beyond his space endeavors, Collins was a fervent advocate for ecology and conservation. He led a life marked by optimism and dedication to preserving our planet. His memoir, "Carrying the Fire," published in 1974, remains a testament to his experiences and insights during the Apollo era.
The life of Michael Collins is a testament to the indomitable human spirit and the pursuit of the extraordinary. He played a pivotal role in one of humanity's greatest achievements, the Apollo 11 mission, and his contributions deserve recognition and remembrance. Michael Collins may have been the "forgotten astronaut" to some, but his legacy is etched in the stars, forever inspiring generations to come.