On Wednesday, April 28th, 2021. the news came that Michael Collins, the Command and Service Module pilot on Apollo 11 had passed away at the age of 90.
Collins was the unsung hero of Apollo 11. While Armstrong and Aldrin held the world’s attention, he quietly circled the Moon in the CSM on his own. A natural loner, he stated he never really felt lonely, and in the 48 minutes of each orbit when he was out of radio contact with the Earth as Columbia passed round the far side of the Moon, has was not afraid. Rather, he felt “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation”.
Born on October 31st, 1930 in Rome, Italy, Collins, was the second son and forth child of James Lawton Collins and Virginia Collins ( née Stewart). The Collins family was steeped in military service, a fact that helped shaped Michael’s life.
Rising to the rank of of major-general, his father served in the 8th Cavalry during the Philippine–American War, and also saw deployments in both World Wars; he was also an aide-de-camp to General of the Armies John Joseph (Black Jack” Pershing. His brother – Michael’s uncle – was General J. Lawton Collins, the Army Chief of Staff during the Korean War. Collins’ elder brother, James Lawton Collins Jr., also served in US Army in World War II and rose to the rank of brigadier general, and served as the U.S. Army Chief of Military History from 1970 to 1982.
Given his father’s career, Collins spent the first 17 years of his life following his father to his various US and overseas posting. During this time – and possibly fuelled by his father’s tale of flying on a Wright Brother’s biplane in 1911 – he jumped at the chance to take the controls of a US Army Air Corp Widgeon being flown by a family friend, awakening a nascent talent for flying.
Graduating from college in 1948 Collins briefly toyed with the idea of entering the US diplomatic service, but opted to follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother, entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, sharing his class with future fellow astronaut Ed White. Graduating from West Point in 1952 with a BSc in military science, Collins had the choice of pursuing an Army or Air Force career and decided on the latter in part because of his love of flying and the rate at which aeronautics were developing, and in part because given the careers of his father, uncle and brother, he was worried about accusations of nepotism should he enter the Army.
It turned out that Collins was a “natural” pilot who easily took to flying jets. After training, he was selected for advanced day fighter training – a highly dangerous activity at the time, with 11 of his classmates killed during the 22 weeks of the training course. He also trained with fighter-bombers and gained qualifications in nuclear weapons delivery as well as maintaining his edge as a fighter pilot, winning first prize in a 1956 gunnery competition.
During the late 1950s, Collins was awarded command of a Mobile Training Detachment allowing him to accumulate over 1,500 hours flying time, which in turn gained him admittance to the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School. From 1960 through 1962, he flew numerous jet aircraft – although the test pilot’s life of hard flying and occasional ’bouts of hard drinking in celebration / commiseration encouraged him to quit smoking, with a four-hour flight as co-pilot of a B52 Stratofortress bomber getting him through the initial stages of nicotine withdrawal.
In 1962, like millions of others, Collins witnessed the flight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. As s result, he applied to be a part of the second NASA astronaut intake, but his application was unsuccessful. However, as the Air Force was trying to enter space research via its own means, Collins applied for a new postgraduate course offered on the basics of space flight. He was accepted into the third class, studying alongside future astronauts: Charles Bassett, Edward Givens and Joe Engle.
In mid-1963 NASA started recruitment for their third astronaut intake – and Deke Slayton, the Chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA, personally called both Collins and Bassett and offered them places in the astronaut training programme after reviewing their applications.
After completing his basic training, Collins opted to take pressure suits and extravehicular activities (EVAs, also known as spacewalks) as his specialised area of study. In writing his autobiography, he admitted that he was concerned at being excluded from the planning for the first American space walk – undertaken by Ed White in June 1965 – despite have the greatest expertise in the practical operation of space suits and in EVA protocols.
He was the first Group 3 astronaut to receive a crew assignment – back-up pilot for Gemini 7, which assigned him a flight seat on Gemini 10, alongside mission commander John “Jim” Young, who would go on to become NASA’s most experienced astronaut, flying Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle.
Gemini 10 was one of the most ambitious of the Gemini programme. It carried fifteen scientific experiments – more than any other Gemini mission outside of Gemini 7; it also called for two EVAs, and multiple rendezvous and docking with two Agena target vehicles. The EVAs meant that Collins became the first person to complete two spacewalks in the same mission.
Following the success of the 3-day Gemini 10 mission, Collins was assigned to the backup crew for the second crewed Apollo flight (Apollo 2), serving as the lunar Module Pilot, with Frank Borman as Commander and Thomas P. Stafford the Command Module Pilot. The training exposed Collins to both piloting the lunar module and the command module, and allowed him to receive training as a helicopter pilot – helicopters being believed to be the best way to simulate the descent of the lunar module.
With the ending of the Gemini programme, NASA opted to reshuffle the Apollo mission line up, axing Apollo 2 as it was seen as largely a re-run of Apollo 1. This and alterations to the crew rosters resulted in Collins – with the benefit of his experience and vehicle exposure – being transferred from lunar module pilot to command module pilot. In his role, he was promoted to the prime crew for Apollo 8.
Tragedy and health then intervened: the first in the form of the Apollo 1 fired that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and which prompted a redesign of the Apollo Command Module and a reorganisation of the planned Apollo flights. The second came as a result of Collins suffering a cervical disc herniation in early 1968 that required surgery. As a result, Collins was initially moved from Apollo 8 to Apollo 9, and then removed from that mission to allow time to recuperate from his surgery.
As a result of all of this, Collins was selected with fellow Group 3 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and the exceptional Group 2 astronaut Neil Armstrong for the crew of Apollo 11, now earmarked to make the first crewed landing on the Moon – providing Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 missions completed successfully.
Given his role as Command Module Pilot, Collins often trained separately to Armstrong and Aldrin – and given they would be the two who would be the first humans to land on the Moon, they often took the lion’s share of media interest . Yet it was his role in the mission that perhaps carried the heaviest burden: if anything went wrong with the lunar module that left his colleagues stranded, Collins would be the one who would have to abandon them to their deaths and return to Earth alone.
Apollo 11 lifted-off from Kennedy Space Centre on July 16th, 1969. The mission has been documented to such a degree (including in these pages), that little need be said about the major elements. While Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface, Collins – who was also responsible for design the mission’s patch – kept himself busy with a range of tasks aboard the command and service module, which he came to regard as his personal space to the extent he wrote a dedication to the vehicle in the equipment bay:
Spacecraft 107 — alias Apollo 11 — alias Columbia. The best ship to come down the line. God Bless Her. Michael Collins, CMP
He also dealt with a potential malfunction in the vehicle’s coolant system which, if unchecked, might have resulted in parts of Columbia freezing.
Mission Control advised him to follow a complicated procedure for taking manual control of the system as he passed out of radio range around the far side of the Moon. When he regained radio contact, he reported the issue dealt with – although he did so by the simple expedient of ignoring Mission Control entirely and simply switching the system to manual control and then back to automatic!
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.
– Michael Collins,