American astronaut Michael Collins was part of the historic 1969 Apollo 11 mission, remaining in the command module as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. Since he stayed behind to pilot the command module as Aldrin and Armstrong made their historic first steps, Collins was often called the "forgotten astronaut." He died on April 28, 2021 at the age of 90.
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Born in Italy, on October 31, 1930, where his father, United States Army Major General James Lawton Collins, was stationed. After the United States entered World War II, the family moved to Washington, D.C. where Collins attended St. Albans School. During this time, he applied and was accepted to West Point Military Academy in New York, and decided to follow his father, two uncles, brother and cousin into the armed services.
In 1952, Collins graduated from West Point with a B.S. He joined the Air Force that same year, and completed flight training in Columbus, Mississippi. His performance earned him a position on the advanced day fighter training team at Nellis Air Force Base, flying F-86 Sabres. This was followed by an assignment to the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing at the George Air Force Base, where he learned how to deliver nuclear weapons. He also served as an experimental flight test officer at Edwards Air Force Base in California, testing jet fighters.
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Collins made the decision to become an astronaut after watching John Glenn’s Mercury Atlas 6 flight. He applied for the second group of astronauts that same year, but was not accepted. Disappointed, but undaunted, Collins entered the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School as the Air Force began to research space. That year, NASA once again called for astronaut applications, and Collins was more prepared than ever. In 1963 he was chosen by NASA to be part of the third group of astronauts.
Collins made two spaceflights. The first, on July 18, 1966, was the Gemini 10 mission where Collins performed a spacewalk. The second was the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969— the first lunar landing in history. Collins, accompanied by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, remained in the Command Module while his partners walked on the planet. Collins continued circling the moon until July 21, when Armstrong and Aldrin rejoined him.
The next day, he and his fellow astronauts left lunar orbit. They landed in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin were all awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Richard Nixon. However, Aldrin and Armstrong ended up receiving a majority of the public credit for the historic event, even though Collins was also on the flight.
Collins left NASA in January 1970, and in 1971 he joined the administrative staff of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. In 1980, he entered the private sector, working as an aerospace consultant. Collins and his wife, Patricia Finnegan, had three children.
Upon Collins' death, NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a statement that the nation had lost a true pioneer.
"NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential," Jurczyk said. "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."