Pioneering Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins passes away at 90

A pivotal figure of the legendary Apollo 11 moon landing has died. Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 command pilot who orbited the moon so that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Armstrong could famously walk the lunar surface in July 1969, passed away at 90, his family confirmed on social media.

The calm, even-keeled, and razor-sharp former Houstonian lost his fight to cancer, per his family, who released this statement.

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.

His family added a request for privacy and that funeral services are forthcoming.

Born in Rome, Italy, Collins graduated high school in Washington, D.C. and later, West Point. He chose a career in the Air Force career and was a fighter pilot from 1959 to 1963 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He logged more than 4,200 hours of flying time, per a NASA biography. In October 1963, he was a member of the third group of NASA astronauts; his first flight was as pilot of Gemini 10, a three-day mission launched July 18, 1966.

Years later in July 1969, Collins was the instrumental force who kept the Apollo 11 Columbia lunar module in orbit — though he was largely forgotten when Armstrong made his “one small step for mankind” on July 20, 1969. Subsequent publicity tours when the three astronauts landed thrust Collins back on the global stage.

Collins retired from the Air Force as a major general and left NASA in 1970 and became assistant secretary of state for public affairs, per NASA. A year later, he joined the Smithsonian Institution as director of the National Air and Space Museum, where he helped plan the construction of a new museum building. (It was completed on time and under budget and opened to the public in 1976.)

Charming and affable in interviews, Collins also penned books including, Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and also earned the Air Force Command Pilot Astronaut Wings, as well as the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross.

“Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk in a statement. “As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module — some called him ‘the loneliest man in history’ — while his colleagues walked on the Moon for the first time, he helped our nation achieve a defining milestone.”

For his part, Collins saw himself as essential in the Apollo 11 mission and acknowledged the solitude.

“This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two,” he said in 2009. “I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact 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 on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”

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