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Remembering Michael Collins, Apollo 11’s Third—and Essential—Man

7 minute read

Few people think about the time Michael Collins didn’t go to the moon. Collins, who died of cancer on April 28 at age 90, is best remembered as Apollo 11’s command module pilot—in some ways the unluckiest man on the luckiest mission of all time. It was Apollo 11 that, in the summer of 1969, stuck the first crewed lunar landing, taking Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin down to the surface, while Collins, bless him, stayed aloft in the command module orbiting 60 miles above, keeping his uniform clean and white while his crewmates got dirty on the endless gray beach that is the moon.

All three men got the credit, all three got the parades and the medals and the world tour and the TV appearances. But Armstrong and Aldrin were the two truly limned in the light of history. Collins? Well, said many, his was a yeoman’s job.

It wasn’t, of course, but never mind. History had other plans for Collins, and in some ways he had already made his mark—a much subtler and arguably richer mark—seven months earlier during the celebrated Dec. 1968 flight of Apollo 8, the first time human beings ventured out to the moon—albeit just to orbit, not to land and walk around. Collins was originally tapped to fly on that mission, but a bone spur in his spine grounded him until he could undergo surgery. He ended up in Mission Control instead, working the capsule communicator, or “Capcom,” console.

He was there throughout much of the flight, but most notably during the pivotal moment a few hours after launch, when the astronauts were still in Earth orbit and would fire up their engine and light out for the moon. The maneuver was known as trans-lunar injection (TLI), and it was Collins who made the famous call.

“Alright Apollo 8,” he said, “you are go for TLI.”

And then he slumped in his seat. The moment, he knew, was a defining one for humanity. A species that had been walking around the planet for a quarter of a million years but never ventured beyond a few hundred miles above the surface was at last preparing to shove out of the safe harbor of low-Earth orbit and head for the bottomless waters of deep space. And all he had been given to say was that one flat scrap of space-speak.

“I remember thinking, ‘shit, we ought to have an oompah band and some celestial [celebration],'” Collins told me when we spoke about the mission in 2015. “And in the usual way, NASA reduced it to a little bit of jargon no one could understand.”

But Collins understood, and NASA itself understood, and history…well, history is writ from moments like that. Collins, as it happened, almost missed his chance to have any role in that history.

Astronaut Michael Collins addresses a crowd at the New Orleans Michoud Assembly Plant as a model of the giant Saturn 5 booster that sent the Apollo crew on their way to the moon rests in the background on Sept. 6, 1969.
Astronaut Michael Collins addresses a crowd at the New Orleans Michoud Assembly Plant as a model of the giant Saturn 5 booster that sent the Apollo crew on their way to the moon rests in the background on Sept. 6, 1969.AP

A U.S. Air Force test pilot who eventually rose to the rank of Major General, Collins was born into a military family in Rome, where his father was on assignment at the time. He later returned to the U.S., where he attended West Point. He was not quite far along enough in his career to compete for selection in the first astronaut class named in 1959, but he applied for the second class in 1962—and was rejected.

“I do recall that when I applied to be an astronaut we had to undergo some psychiatric tests,” Collins told me in a later conversation, in 2019, during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 mission. “And the first time, I flunked. They assailed me with a whole series of inkblot tests. And I identified very carefully and properly this one, that one. We got down to the last one. It was a blank piece of paper. And I said, ‘Oh sure, that’s 11 polar bears fornicating in a snow bank.’ And, lo and behold, I was rejected.”

The next time around, during the selection for the third astronaut class, he played it smarter. “When I got to that point I said, ‘I see my mother, my father. My father’s a little bit larger than my mother. And they both are very stern and wonderful people.’ And I passed that time.”

It’s a good thing he did. Collins was not just an extraordinary pilot and astronaut—he went to space once before Apollo 11, aboard the 1966 flight of Gemini 10, when he became the first person to walk in space twice—he was also a reflective, even poetic man. “A withered, sun-seared peach pit,” was how he described the surface of the moon in his 1974 autobiography, Carrying the Fire. Of the time he spent by himself in the Apollo 11 command module, he wrote: “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”

Astronaut Michael Collins wears his space helmet for the Apollo 11 moon mission, on July 20, 1969.
Astronaut Michael Collins wears his space helmet for the Apollo 11 moon mission, on July 20, 1969.NASA/AP

As for that TLI moment? Here’s how he described it when he wasn’t just speaking to the likes of me, but writing for the ages: “After [the engine burn] there were three men in the solar system who would have to be counted apart from all the other billions, three who were in a different place, whose motion obeyed different rules, and whose habitat had to be considered a separate planet. The three could examine the earth and the earth could examine them, and each would see the other for the first time.”

It was that reflectiveness, that lyricism, that long view of his mission—and all of the Apollo missions—that best suited him for his supernumerary role on Apollo 11. As Armstrong and Aldrin cast off in the lunar module to head from orbit down to the surface, he bid them goodbye with a “You cats take it easy.” When they returned, he almost—almost—kissed Aldrin on the forehead, he told me, so glad was he to see his crewmates back and whole.

And in the interval he spent aloft, alone in his command module, circling round and round the moon while those same crewmates planted a flag and set out their experiments and pressed their bootprints into the lunar surface, he quietly did his job, ensuring that they would have a spacecraft to return to at all. “I’d be a liar or a fool if I said I had the best seat on Apollo 11,” he said in our 2019 conversation. “But I can say absolutely, with total honesty, I was delighted to have the seat that I had.”

Michael Collins could have had another seat on a later mission to the moon, this time as commander and this time leaving his own bootprints behind. Deke Slayton, the head of NASA’s astronaut office, promised him as much before he left. But Collins passed up the opportunity.

“I can remember I told him, ‘Thanks Deke,'” he said. “‘If Apollo 11 is having problems and isn’t going to land, I’ll come back and knock on your door. But if it’s successful, I decline your offer for another flight.'”

It did succeed, and he did decline. And that’s just fine. Michael Collins served and flew and thrived and wrote and left his rich, nearly musical voice behind to remind us that he passed this way. That’s more than enough. Godspeed, General Collins.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com