The “loneliest man in history,” Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot and Astronaut Michael Collins, died Wednesday at age 90 after a fight with cancer.
In a statement released by his family, they say his final days were peaceful.
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 all 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 heart from the vantage of space and gazing across the calm waters from the deck of his fishing boat.
The Third Man: Michael Collins
Collins was born in Rome, Italy, on Oct. 31, 1930. He was one of the third group of astronauts named in October 1963 and piloted the Gemini 10 mission in 1966.
He was later selected as the Command Module pilot for Apollo 11’s spaceship Columbia and steered the crew on their trip 238,000 miles away from the surface of the Earth to our galactic companion, the moon.
On July 20, 1969, after 100 hours and 12 minutes into the flight, fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin undocked from the Columbia inside the Eagle Lunar Lander and headed to the surface of the moon.
As Armstrong and Aldrin descended the final miles to become the first humans in history to step foot on any surface other than Earth, they left Collins alone in his orbit.
While Collins passed into the “dark side of the moon,” his communication with his fellow space travelers, and with NASA back on Earth, was blocked.
“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” he wrote in his memoir, “Carrying the Fire,” in 1974.
While Collins flew over the far side of the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin touched down safely on the surface. 650 million people worldwide watched Armstrong’s image taking the final steps off the lander as he said “… one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The loneliest man in history
Each time Collins would orbit the moon, he would once again lose contact with everyone and everything and be the farthest from Earth any human ever has been.
“If a count were taken, the score would be 3 billion plus 2 over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side,” Collins added in his memoir. “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.”
Collins wrote that during his time alone inside the Columbia, he still had plenty to do. He said he was deeply worried about the moment when Armstrong and Aldrin would blast off from the moon and make their way back to his waiting spacecraft.
“My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone,” he wrote. Some 50 years later, he noted he was wearing a packet around his neck that had 18 different contingency plans for rescuing his fellow astronauts. Luckily, they didn’t need any of them.
So close and yet so far
During his trips into space, Collins would rack up 11 days, 2 hours and 4 minutes in space, but he would never get the chance to stand on the moon.
“Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what’s taking place on the lunar surface,” he wrote.
“I know 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. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.”
With his unique perspective of the Earth as he sped around the moon at 3,700 mph while in orbit, he said he wished he could have shared that experience with the world.
“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say 100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced,” he wrote on Twitter in 2019.
I am certain, if everyone could see the Earth floating just outside their windows, every day would be #EarthDay.
There are few things more fragile or more beautiful than Earth, let’s work together today and everyday to protect our home. pic.twitter.com/XJO3RSJczw
— Michael Collins (@AstroMCollins) April 22, 2021
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