Michael Collins, Astronaut Who Piloted Apollo 11's Command Module

115th Explorers Club Annual Dinner
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 16: American former astronaut and test pilot Michael Collins talks during ECAD Blast Off! - Apollo Astronaut Symposium prior the 115th Explorers Club Annual Dinner on March 16, 2019 in New York City. Omar Vega / Getty Images

Astronaut Michael Collins has often been called "the forgotten astronaut." He flew to the Moon aboard Apollo 11 in July 1969, but never set foot there. During the mission, Collins orbited the Moon, doing photography and keeping the command module ready to receive moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they finished their surface mission.

Fast Facts: Michael Collins

  • Born: October 31, 1930, in Rome, Italy
  • Parents: James Lawton Collins, Virginia Stewart Collins
  • Spouse: Patricia Mary Finnegan
  • Children: Michael, Ann, and Kathleen Collins 
  • Education: United States Military Academy at West Point, Harvard University
  • Military Career: U.S. Air Force, Experimental Flight School, Edwards Air Force Base
  • NASA Accomplishments: Gemini astronaut, pilot of the Apollo 11 Command Module, flew to the Moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Armstrong. 
  • Interesting Fact: Collins is a watercolor painter of Everglades scenes and aircraft. 

Early Life

Michael Collins was born on October 31, 1930, to James Lawton Collins and his wife Virginia Stewart Collins. His father was stationed in Rome, Italy, where Collins was born. The elder Collins was a career Army man, and the family moved quite often. Eventually, they settled in Washington, D.C., and Michael Collins attended St. Albans school before leaving to attend college at the United States Military Academy at West Point. 

Collins graduated West Point on June 3, 1952, and immediately entered the United States Air Force to become a pilot. He took flight training in Texas. In 1960, he joined the USAF Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base. Two years later, he applied to become an astronaut and was accepted into the program in 1963. 

Collins's NASA Career

Michael Collins, Gemini and Apollo astronaut.
Astronaut Michael Collins in his official NASA portrait. NASA 

Michael Collins entered NASA in the third group of astronauts ever selected. By the time he joined the program, he had studied spaceflight basics as a graduate student, along with other future astronauts Joe Engle and Edward Givens. Astronaut Charlie Bassett (who died in a crash before he could fly in space) was also a classmate.

During training, Collins specialized in extravehicular activity (EVA) planning for the Gemini program, as well as spacesuits for use during spacewalks. He was assigned to the Gemini mission as the backup and flew aboard the Gemini 10 mission on July 18, 1966. It required Collins and his crewmate astronaut John Young to rendezvous with the Agena vehicles. They also performed other tests, and Collins did two spacewalks during their time on orbit. 

Going to the Moon

Upon his return to Earth, Collins began training for an Apollo mission. Eventually, he was assigned to Apollo 8. Due to some medical issues, Collins did not fly that mission but was instead assigned as the Capsule Communicator (known as "Capcom") for that mission. His job was to handle all communications with Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders on the flight. Following that mission, NASA announced the first team to go to the Moon: Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin to land and explore, and Michael Collins to be Command Module pilot orbiting the Moon.

Michael Collins Studying Flight Plans
Astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, studies flight plan during simulation training at the Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the mission. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The three men lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969. Four days later, the Eagle lander separated from the command module, with Armstrong and Aldrin headed to the Moon. Collins' job was to maintain the orbiter, follow the mission on the surface of the Moon, and photograph the Moon. Then, when the other two were ready, dock with their Eagle lander and bring the other two men back to safety. Collins performed his duties and in later years, admitted that he was very worried about Armstrong and Aldrin landing safely and getting back. The mission was a success, and upon their return, the three astronauts were heralded around the world as heroes. 

Apollo 11 Astronauts In Quarantine
Apollo 11 astronauts (L-R) Aldrin, Collins, & Armstrong peering out window of quarantine room aboard recovery ship Hornet following splashdown fr. historic moon mission. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images / Getty Images

A New Career Path

After the successful Apollo 11 flight, Michael Collins was tapped to join government service, where he was made the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs late in 1969, serving under President Richard Nixon. He held that position until 1971, when he took over as Director of the National Air and Space Museum. Collins held that job until 1978 and then was appointed the undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution (the parent body over the Air and Space Museum). 

Since leaving the Smithsonian, Michael Collins has studied at Harvard Business School and served as vice president of LTV Aerospace. He's also written several books, including his autobiography titled "Carrying the Fire." He is also well-known as a watercolor painter, focusing on scenes in Florida and also on spacecraft and aircraft subjects. 

Awards and Legacy

Michael Collins is a retired USAF general and belongs to a number of organizations, such as the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was also inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Over the years, Collins has been given many awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, and NASA's Distinguished Service Medal. A lunar crater is named for him, as well as an asteroid. In a rare and unique honor, due to his involvement in several movies and TV, Collins and his fellow astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame dedicated to the Apollo 11 astronauts. He also appeared in a documentary about his flight to the Moon. 

Collins was married to Patricia Mary Finnegan until her death in 2014. He remains an active and sought-after public speaker and continues painting and writing.

Sources

  • Chandler, David L., and MIT News Office. “Michael Collins: ‘I Could Have Been the Last Person to Walk on the Moon.’” MIT News, 2 Apr. 2015, news.mit.edu/2015/michael-collins-speaks-about-first-moon-landing-0402.
  • Dunbar, Brian. “NASA Honors Apollo Astronaut Michael Collins.” NASA, NASA, www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2006/jan/HQ_M06012_Collins.html.
  • NASA, NASA, er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/collinsm.htm.
  • Nasa. “Michael Collins: The Lucky, Grumpy Astronaut - The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com, 22 Oct. 2018, www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2018/10/21/michael-collins-the-lucky-grumpy-astronaut/1U9cyEr7aRPidVuNbDDkfO/story.html.