An astronaut on board one of the most famous space missions in history — the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon — died of cancer Wednesday at age 90.
Astronaut Michael Collins never stepped foot on the moon himself, but piloted the command module roughly 60 miles above the lunar surface as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to put boots down on the moon.
Mr. Collins’ death was announced by his family on Twitter in a statement that said, “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.”
Mr. Collins logged 266 hours in space in total, selected in 1963 for the third group of NASA astronauts. He was born in Italy, graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and served as a fighter pilot and experimental test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California before his space career.
After retiring from the Air Force and leaving NASA, Mr. Collins became assistant secretary of state for public affairs, served as the director of the National Air and Space Museum, became vice president of LTV Aerospace and Defense Co., started his own company, wrote and lectured about space and wrote several books.
“Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins,” Steve Jurczyk, the acting NASA administrator, said 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. He also distinguished himself in the Gemini Program and as an Air Force pilot.”
The administrator went on to state, “Michael remained a tireless promoter of space. ‘Exploration is not a choice, really, it’s an imperative,’ he said. Intensely thoughtful about his experience in orbit, he added, ‘What would be worth recording is what kind of civilization we Earthlings created and whether or not we ventured out into other parts of the galaxy.’
“His own signature accomplishments, his writings about his experiences, and his leadership of the National Air and Space Museum helped gain wide exposure for the work of all the men and women who have helped our nation push itself to greatness in aviation and space. There is no doubt he inspired a new generation of scientists, engineers, test pilots and astronauts.”
Buzz Aldrin tweeted a photo of the three crewmates laughing, and said, “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. We will miss you. May you rest in peace.”
Mr. Collins’ bestselling memoir was “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey” (1974). In it, he reflected on the loneliness he felt during his solitary time in orbit around the moon. “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” the astronaut wrote. “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.”