Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins who joined Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on their mission to the moon in 1969 has died at the age of 90.
He died Wednesday, according to NASA's website. A statement released by his family said Collins died of 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," said the family statement.
Collins was known for his quiet and unassuming nature, and in recent years had become an active voice on social media, where he shared "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," the family statement further said.
Unlike Armstrong and Aldrin, Collins never walked on the moon. He stayed behind and piloted the command module as it circled above. Because of that, Collins is often called the "forgotten astronaut."
Collins remained alone in the command module for more than 21 hours until Armstrong and Aldrin returned in the lunar module. He lost contact with mission control in Houston each time the spacecraft circled the dark side of the moon.
Although crews aboard two previous Apollo missions also orbited the moon, no one had spent as much time circling the lunar surface in isolation as Collins.
"Not since Adam has a human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing during the 47 minutes of each lunar revolution, when he is behind the moon with no one to talk to except his tape recorder," NASA public affairs officer Douglas K. Ward said on July 21, 1969, the second day of Armstrong and Aldrin's journey to the moon surface.
In his 1974 memoir, "Carrying the Fire," Collins however said he enjoyed his time alone in space.
"I don't mean to deny a feeling of solitude," he wrote. "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 3 billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God-knows-what on this side."
Accolades pour in from different quarters
US President Joe Biden said his prayers were with the Collins family.
"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 in a statement. "Godspeed, Mike."
Steve Jurczyk, acting NASA Administrator hailed Collins as "a true pioneer."
"NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential. ... His spirit will go with us as we venture toward farther horizons," Jurczyk said in a statement.
Writing on Twitter, Buzz Aldrin paid tribute to Collins, saying: "Dear Mike, wherever you have been or will be, you will always have the fire to carry us deftly to new heights and to the future."
Noted space historian Francis French said in a statement that "it's a shame that when people are asked, 'Can you name the Apollo 11 crew?' Mike Collins is normally the name that doesn't come to mind."
"But in many ways he was the keystone of the mission. He was the one who really knew how to fly the spacecraft solo (the only person who flew a spacecraft solo in the entire mission) and the only one who could get all three of them home," said French.
Life as an astronaut
Mike Collins was born in 1930 in Rome, where his father was a major general in the U.S. Army. His father's job as a State Department military attache gave the family five different homes by the time Collins was 10.
Service and duty were a part of Collins his whole life. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later joined the Air Force and became a test pilot.
In 1963, he was chosen by NASA for its astronaut program, still in its early days but ramping up quickly at the height of the Cold War as the United States sought to push ahead of the Soviet Union and fulfill President John F. Kennedy's pledge of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Collin's first flight was aboard Gemini 10, part of the missions that prepared NASA's Apollo program. On that mission, he became the fourth human to conduct a spacewalk.
As a boy, Collins dreamed of going to space. "I used to joke that NASA sent me to the wrong place, to the moon," he said once, "because I think Mars is a more interesting place. It's a place I always read about as a child."
A slipped disk in 1968 nearly derailed his astronaut career, but Collins recovered from surgery in time to be included on the Apollo 11 roster. A slipped disk in 1968 nearly derailed his astronaut career, but Mr. Collins recovered from surgery in time to be included on the Apollo 11 roster
Apollo 11 was Collins' second flight into space. He freely acknowledged that his was not the best job on the mission but said that he didn't resent being confined to the command module.
Collins was later slated to be named commander of Apollo 17, which would take flight three years later (in 1972) and was the last mission to put men on the moon. However in 1970, chafing from the constant attention and reluctant to undergo three more years of the exhausting physical training required for astronauts, he opted to retire from NASA. "My mind-set was: 'It's over. We did it,' " Collins said in a 2015 talk at MIT.
Why is there no moon landing anymore?
Humanity hasn't been back to earth's nearest neighbor since (though many of the robotic probes have) even though a modern smartphone or even a smart calculator has way more computing power than the best computers used to send astronauts to the moon.
NASA has mounted multiple crewed moon projects since Apollo, including the ambitious Constellation Program in the mid-2000s, but none of them have gone the distance.
So what was so different about Apollo? It was incubated in a very particular environment, experts say—the Cold War space race with the Soviet Union.
"This was war by another means—it really was," Roger Launius, who served as NASA's chief historian from 1990 to 2002 and wrote the book "Apollo's Legacy", told Space.com. "And we have not had that since."
"The Apollo days were not, fundamentally, about going to the moon," John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C., told Space.com.
"They were about demonstrating American global leadership in a zero-sum Cold War competition with the Soviet Union."