Michael Collins, known as the “loneliest man in history” for being the often-forgotten astronaut who stayed aboard Apollo 11 and orbited the moon alone while his teammates took man’s first steps on the moon, died Wednesday at age 90, his family said.
The former astronaut died surrounded by family after battling cancer, according to a statement from the Collins family.
Collins never became a household name like Apollo 11 crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin after the 1969 moon landing, in part because Collins stayed behind to pilot the spacecraft while the other astronauts took their highly publicized moon walk.
After the moon landing, Collins was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, and inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Collins retired from NASA in 1970, and deepened his legacy in space exploration as an early director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and he oversaw the facility’s construction in Washington, D.C., which became the world’s most popular museum after it opened in 1976.
Collins was preceded in death by Armstrong in 2012, leaving Aldrin as the final surviving member of the Apollo 11 mission.
“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,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a statement Wednesday.
A photograph Collins snapped during the mission became one of the most iconic images from the expedition. Taken from the Apollo 11 Command Module, the photo shows Armstrong and Aldrin returning from the moon in the Eagle lunar module with Earth in the background. Viewers later commented the photograph contained every person in existence except for Collins himself.
$152 billion. That’s how much the Apollo program would have cost in 2019. In 1968, the bill came out to $25.4 billion.
Collins was born on Halloween day in 1930 in Rome, the child of an U.S. Army officer stationed there as a military attaché. The Collins family moved often as he grew up, living in Oklahoma, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and Puerto Rico before Collins went to college at United States Military Academy at West Point. After he graduated in 1952, Collins entered the Air Force out of interest in rapidly-accelerating aeronautics technology. He was inspired to try out for NASA and become an astronaut after watching the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission in 1962, the first time Americans went into orbit. After a brief stint with the U.S. State Department and his career at the National Air and Space Museum, he worked in the private aerospace sector and started his own consulting firm. He later retired to Florida with his wife, with whom he shared three children.