Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted the spacecraft that carried men to the moon in 1969, has died of cancer at the age of 90, his family said.
Collins piloted the command module Columbia during the Apollo 11 mission, resting alone in outer space as crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended and took the first steps on the moon.
“It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand,” Collins said on the 10th anniversary of the moon landing in 1979.
“Exploration is not a choice really, it’s an imperative, and it’s simply a matter of timing as to when the option is exercised.”
Acting NASA administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a statement: “Whether his work was behind the scenes or on full view, his legacy will always be as one of the leaders who took America’s first steps into the cosmos.”
Collins was born in Rome in 1930. His father was a US army general. He graduated from the US Military Academy in 1952 and became a fighter pilot in the Air Force.
During the mission to the moon, Collins was responsible for re-docking the spacecraft so the three men could travel back to Earth. If something had gone wrong, he would have returned alone.
Collins said in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing that he was “not one iota lonely” during the more than 24 hours he flew alone in space, explaining that he had “hot coffee” and “music if I wanted it”.
He also said he “enjoyed the peace and quiet” during the certain times he spent without contact with Mission Control as he orbited the moon, saying that although they were “friends and saviours”, they could be a nuisance with their “yak, yak, they want this, that and the other little tidbit of information, minute after minute, hour after hour”.
When the group returned to Earth, they went on a world tour after quarantining. They visited 25 countries in just over five weeks.
He was often asked if he regretted not landing on the moon but he wrote in his autobiography that he was satisfied with the seat he had in the mission.
“This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.”
Collins said one of the things that struck him most was the way the Earth looked from space — peaceful and serene but also delicate.
“As I look back on Apollo 11, I more and more am attracted to my recollection, not of the moon, but of the Earth. Tiny, little Earth in its little black velvet background,” Collins said while marking the mission’s 50th anniversary in 2019.