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Michael Collins, once the world's 'loneliest man,' is dead. If that name means little or nothing to you, read this

Buzz Aldrin sole remaining survivor of Apollo 11 Moon landing

Obit Michael Collins, the one Apollo 11 astronaut too few remember, has died of cancer at the age of 90.

Collins was the man who stayed in the Command Module Columbia alone in lunar orbit while his crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history by setting foot on the Moon. But he never begrudged the pair for their time on the lunar regolith, and turned down further opportunities to visit our natural satellite.

“Mike always faced the challenges of life with grace and humility, and faced this, his final challenge, in the same way," his family said in a statement.

"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."

Collins was already a veteran astronaut by the time Apollo 11 came around, having flown on the Gemini 10 mission three years earlier in 1966, in which he performed a space walk and docked his spacecraft with another. The mission went off almost without a hitch, though Collins did manage to drop his camera in orbit.

Apollo 11 (pic: NASA)

Apollo 11 @ 50: The long shadow of the flag


Although he was in line for an Apollo 9 slot, a back operation and three months in a neck brace delayed Collins' flight until Apollo 11, which lifted off on July 16, 1969. Three days later, the team reached the Moon's orbit.

As Armstrong and Aldrin descended in their lander, Collins stayed in orbit managing the command module, and was cut off from Mission Control for 48 minutes at a time – something he described as very peaceful. "I am now truly alone and absolutely alone from any known life. I am it," he wrote in his log.

While waiting, and prior to the mission, he also worked on contingency plans if something should go wrong, including how to pilot Columbia down to the Moon for a pickup if the Eagle lander's launch from the surface wasn't successful. Both Collins and Armstrong had severe doubts about the Eagle's engine, and both thought the launch would have only a 50 per cent chance of success.

"My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the Moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter," he recalled in his autobiography Carrying the Fire, which remains one of the best books by an early astronaut.

"If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it."

Back on Earth

As the history books show and at least some of our brains remember, it all worked out in the end, and the journey was a success. Collins was offered the chance to fly on a future Apollo mission, this time to the lunar surface, but turned down the chance since he wanted to spend more time with his family.

"As an astronaut I always thought I had the best job in the world and I still think that," he wrote, "but for me when it was over it was over."

After leaving NASA, he did a brief stint in the US State Department running public affairs, before becoming the director of the National Air and Space Museum. During his tenure at that institution, he pushed politicians into funding the magnificent building that currently houses part of the museum's collection, and if you're ever in Washington DC this hack heartily recommends a visit.

Collins remained a tireless advocate for space travel, and noted that he'd have been far more interested in going to Mars – an ambition the last remaining Apollo crew member Buzz Aldrin shares. In the decades since the Moon landing, Collins had grown weary of the hero worship of astronauts.

"At age 78, some things about current society irritate me, such as the adulation of celebrities and inflation of heroism," he said in 2009. "Heroes abound, but don't count astronauts among them. We worked very hard, we did our jobs to near perfection, but that is what we had been hired to do."

Heroes abound, but don't count astronauts among them. We worked very hard, we did our jobs to near perfection, but that is what we had been hired to do

Collins was born into an American military family in 1930 in Rome, Italy, and a commemorative plaque can be seen at his birthplace. He was accepted into the top US military academy of West Point, graduating 185th of 527 of his class in 1952, and joined the Air Force despite his relatives serving in the Army, saying he wanted to avoid charges of nepotism.

After a stint with F-86 Sabre fighters, and time spent as a trainer he later described as a very dull experience, he became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force base when NASA's astronaut program was recruiting. He and many of his fellow pilots joined up for the chance to fly a space vehicle, something he never failed at.

"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," said Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk today.

“NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential. 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. And his spirit will go with us as we venture toward farther horizons.” ®

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