Space Sunday special: Michael Collins

Michael Collins in his official NASA Apollo 11 photo. Credit: NASA

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.

Collins aboard Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

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.

Collins (right) with John Young ahead of their Gemini 10 flight. Credit: NASA

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.

Collins (left) with Edwin Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in an engaging black and white portrait (later colourised). Credit: NASA

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, recounting how he felt after Armstrong and Aldrin had departed for the lunar
surface, and he was passing around the Moon’s far side
Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, 1974)

Following the mission, all three men found themselves elevated to global celebrity status, which included a 38-day, 22-country world tour. The mission was the zenith of all three men’s NASA careers, and none of them would fly in space again.

Collins, sporting a ‘tache, flanked by a jubilant Armstrong and a laughing Aldrin, in the mobile quarantine unit aboard the USS Hornet, not long after the splashdown of Apollo 11. Credit: NASA / US Navy

Returning to the US after the world tour, Collins was appointed to the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs – an unusual choice, given he was neither a politician nor diplomat. His appointment came at a time was America was in the midst of considerable civil unrest (the Vietnam War, the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings to name three causes of upset), and he attempted to use his fame as a Apollo astronaut to open a public discourse on insularity, noting that people tend to only engage with like minds and have little interest in hearing the voices of difference / opposition – one wonders what he thought more recently of the echo chambers that are social media.

Ultimately, the role he’d taken didn’t suit Collins’ disposition, and after six months he secured President Nixon’s permission to become the Director of the National Air and Space Museum, a post he took up in April 1971.

At the time, the museum didn’t exist, despite a National Air Museum being authorised as far back as 1946 – so Collins’ first job was clear: secure the money and the land to get the museum built. In this, he had to overcome severe limitations: Congress would only approve US $40 million for the design and construction of the building, and it had to be ready, complete with exhibits, by the US bicentennial in mid-1976.

Despite political wibbling, issues over building design and execution, and the need source all the exhibition materials and get staff hired and trained, Collins and his staff managed the project, bringing the museum on budget and open three days ahead of schedule; no mean feat for a government project. He  remained in charge of the museum until 1978, when he stepped down to become undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. By now  major general in the US Air Force Reserve, he retired from the military four years later in 1982.

In the late 1980s he turned his hand to writing, having already written his autobiography, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys in 1974, regarded as the best account of the life of an astronaut. From 1988 through 1994 he wrote Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space (1988), Mission to Mars (1990), and  Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story (1994), a children’s book on his experiences based on an earrlier 1974 piece. In retirement he also became an accomplished watercolour painter, specialising in landscapes and aircraft.

In his writings, Collins gave often revealed his abiding humanity and ability to understand the human condition, a view he held throughout his life after NASA, often wishing more people – particularly politicians – could witness the fragility of the world on which they live.

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say 100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified façade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. 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.

– Michael Collins

Released by the Collins family in announcing his passing, was this photo of Michael and Pat Collins, partners for 57 years

Whilst serving in the USAF in the 1950s, Collins met Patricia Mary Finnegan from Boston, Massachusetts. An English major, she had chosen a career as a social worker dealing mainly with single mothers; and to see the world in this role, she had taken a position with the US Air Force service club, thus bringing her into contact with the dashing pilot.

Their courtship was difficult – not only did they have to work around his deployments, Pat was Catholic – her family very thoroughly so – and Collins nominally Episcopalian. Nevertheless, their love for each other was clear, and they were married in 1957, and unlike many astronaut marriages, theirs stood the test of time, lasting until Pat passed away in 2014. They had three children together: the actress Kate Collins, a second daughter, Ann, and a son, Michael Jr., all three of whom saw him not as a famous astronaut, but a dedicated father and husband.

Michael Collins passed away under hospice care in Naples, Florida, as a result of cancer. His children and grandchildren were with him and announced his death in a simple statement:

We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today after a valiant battle with cancer. He spend his last days peacefully with his family. 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 honour his wish for us to celebrate, not mourn, that life.

With his passing, the world has lost a true pioneer and an inspiration to so many. My condolences to his family and friends.