Astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted Apollo 11’s command module as his crewmates became the first humans to walk on the Moon, died on Wednesday at the age of 90.
In a statement, the Collins family said that the accomplished astronaut passed away after “a valiant battle with cancer” and that his loved ones would honor his wish to celebrate, rather than mourn, his life.
There is plenty to celebrate about Collins’ life, which took him from his birthplace of Rome, Italy, all the way to the far side of the Moon during that historic week in July 1969, when humans first stepped foot on another world.
Collins was the only member of Apollo 11 who did not land on the Moon, but his role on the mission was just as crucial to its success as the touchdown of the lunar module. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended and landed on the lunar surface in the Eagle module, Collins piloted the Columbia module around the Moon over the course of the day-long surface mission.
Each time Columbia passed behind the Moon, Collins was cut from radio contact with Earth and his crewmates, left to drift past the remote far side in total seclusion. But Collins said he never felt “lonely or abandoned” during these moments, though he did experience “a feeling of solitude,” according to a NASA interview.
“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” he recalled of those trips around the Moon. “I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”
Once the surface mission had concluded, Collins successfully rendezvoused with his crewmates so that they could journey back to Earth together. This mission, in addition to his first spaceflight on Gemini 8, left Collins with a deep appreciation for our planet that he would recount for the rest of his life in books and interviews.
“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed,” Collins said, according to NASA. “The Earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.”
After the completion of the groundbreaking mission, Collins held high-profile positions in government and aerospace and earned numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs under President Nixon and served as the director of the National Air and Space Museum until 1978.
Collins also authored several books, competed in triathlons, dabbled in watercolors, and raised three children with his wife of more than 50 years, Patricia Finnegan, who died in 2014.
In their statement on his passing, his children and grandchildren said that Collins spent his final days peacefully with family, and invited his many admirers around the world to join them 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.”
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