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Overview for Michael Collins
Michael Collins

Michael Collins


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Also Known As: Mike Collins Died:
Born: October 31, 1930 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Italy Profession: Cast ...


Though perhaps not a name that resonated with the American consciousness to the same degree as his Apollo 11 crewmembers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins played an integral role in the history of American space exploration by piloting the Command Module Columbia, which brought the two men to the Moon for their epochal walk upon the lunar surface on July 21, 1969. An experienced pilot and veteran of two Gemini missions prior to Apollo 11, Collins orbited the Moon for three days while Armstrong and Aldrin left Columbia to land on the Moon. All three men would become national heroes for their mission, but while Armstrong and Aldrin waged an often contentious battle with the public eye in the years following Apollo 11, Collins quietly slipped into the private sector, serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and later director for the National Air and Space Museum while enjoying a second career as a chronicler of his adventures in space. Despite his low profile - though he did pop up in various NASA documentaries like the feature "In the Shadow of the Moon" (2007) - Collins' participation in Apollo 11, unquestionably one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, assured his position as a genuine American hero.

Born in Rome, Italy on Oct. 31, 1930, Michael Collins was the son of U.S. Army Major General James Lawton Collins, a veteran of numerous military campaigns, including the Philippine-American War and World War II, while an uncle, J. Lawton Collins, served as Army Chief of Staff during the Korean War. As with most children of military officers, Collins' childhood was marked by frequent relocation to bases around the world, including Puerto Rico, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia. His family eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where Collins decided to pursue a career in the military. After graduating from West Point, he joined the United States Air Force, not only because of his abiding fascination with aeronautics, but also to avoid charges of nepotism due to the high-ranking positions held by his father and uncle. Collins completed flight training at Columbia Air Force Base in Mississippi before learning to deliver nuclear weapons with the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing at the George Air Force Base in California before relocating with the unit to France.

Upon his reassignment to the United States, Collins traveled the country as part of a Mobile Training Detachment which taught mechanics how to service new aircraft. During this period, he accumulated over 1,500 hours of flying, which allowed him to apply for the Air Force Experimental Flight Test Pilot School. He was accepted in 1960 along with future astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Irwin. After witnessing John Glenn's orbit around the Earth with Mercury-Atlas 6 in 1962, Collins applied to become an astronaut, but was not selected for the program until 1963 when NASA named 14 men for Group 3, including William "Buzz" Aldrin and David Scott. Two years later, he was selected as backup pilot for Gemini 7, but did not actually travel to space until Gemini 10 in the following year. As pilot for the spaceflight, Collins executed the program's fourth-ever spacewalk by exiting his craft to meet the dormant Agena booster left over from Gemini 8, which made him the first person in history to meet another spacecraft in orbit.

Shortly thereafter, Collins was assigned to the backup crew for Apollo 2, which was cancelled shortly before the launch of the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission due to NASA's belief that the first trip would accomplish all of the program's current requirements. Collins was at Cape Canaveral when the 1967 command module fire that claimed the lives of Apollo 1's crew - Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Edward H. White - occurred, and it later fell to him to inform Chaffee's wife of the accident. The following year, James Lovell replaced Collins as Command Module Pilot of Apollo 9 following surgery for a cervical disc herniation that left him in a neck brace for three months. He was subsequently made a capsule communicator for Apollo 8's historical orbit around the Moon in 1968 before learning that he would join Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11, which would fulfill the late President John F. Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.

As Command Module Pilot of Apollo 11, Collins was required to remain aboard the spacecraft while Armstrong and Aldrin traveled to the surface of the Moon in a Lunar Module, which would then return them to the Command Module Columbia following the completion of the mission. The plan was fraught with danger, as there was no guarantee that the Lunar Module would be able to lift off from the Moon or escape its orbit. All three astronauts themselves believed that the chances of disaster were at least 50-50; Collins would later write that he believed he would return to Earth a "marked man" should Armstrong and Aldrin perish during their mission. For three days, Collins orbited the Moon while his companions descended to the lunar surface. For 48 minutes each day, the far side of the Moon would cut off radio communications with Earth, effectively rendering Collins as the most remote human in existence - later dramatically referred to as "the loneliest man in the world." However, he would later relate that the experience was marked by feelings of confidence and exultation rather than loneliness. After Armstrong and Aldrin's historic walk on the Moon on July 21, 1969, Eagle would rejoin Columbia and return safely to Earth, minting all three men as global heroes while placing the United States in the winner's circle in its long space race against the Soviet Union.

Collins left the space program shortly after the Moon landing to accept the position of White House Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in 1970. He left the job a year later to become director of the National Air and Space Museum, where he remained until 1978, when he stepped down to become undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. That same year, he officially retired from the Air Force with the rank of Major General. In 1980, he became Vice President of LTV Aerospace, remaining there until 1985 when he retired to open his own consulting firm, Michael Collins Associates. Collins also became a prolific author, penning what many considered to be the best book on life in the space program, 1974's Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys, as well as Liftoff: The Story of America's Adventure in Space (1988) and the children's book Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut's Story (1994). Among his countless accolades were the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He and his Apollo 11 crewmates had lunar crates named after them, but only Collins was the subject of a rock song - Jethro Tull's "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me" (1970). Collins was also portrayed three times in television projects: by Jim Metzler in "Apollo 11" (The Family Channel, 1996), by Cary Elwes in the miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" (HBO, 1998) and by Andrew Lincoln in the 2009 TV movie "Moonshot" (The History Channel, 2009). Along with Aldrin - the reclusive Armstrong opted out of participating - Collins added his memories of the Apollo 11 feat to the feature film documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon," an impressive tribute to the NASA space program.

By Paul Gaita

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