Michael Collins, the command module pilot on NASA’s 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon, has died of cancer at age 90. His family shared the news in a Wednesday statement on Collins’ Facebook page. “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.”
While also noting Collins’ previous distinguished service as an Air Force pilot and an astronaut on the early Gemini Program, acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said, “As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module, some called him ‘the loneliest man in history,’ while his colleagues [Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin] walked on the Moon for the first time, he helped our nation achieve a defining milestone.”
Collins himself, said he didn’t feel lonely during the mission. Comfortable in the command module circling the moon, he said, he could “sip coffee” and “set the thermostat to 72 degrees—” thoroughly enjoying the experience and feeling very much a part of the process.
In the years since, Collins has been a tireless advocate for space exploration. Iurczyk quoted Collins’ stance, “Exploration is not a choice, really, it’s an imperative.” The NASA Acting Administrator added, “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.”
As proud and appreciative as he was for his personal experience with space travel, in later life, Collins was an active advocate for humanity here on Earth, and for further space exploration. He once wrote, “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.”
In a 2019 interview with CNN, he expressed his personal enthusiasm for current efforts to walk on the surface of Mars, even joking that NASA should be rebranded as the “National Air and Mars Administration.” Citing today’s high-profile private contributions to space technology, he said, “I’m still looking for Mars and I’m thinking, ‘It’s getting closer.’ I think we’re getting to the point where we have more of the ‘can-do’ as well as the ‘will-do’ aspect of going to Mars.”