Michael Collins: The Forgotten Apollo 11 Astronaut
With much deserved fanfare, the two Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were the first two humans to walk on the moon. But wait, there was a third astronaut on the journey, Michael Collins. Though the spotlight of history has shone more brightly on Armstrong and Aldrin, Collins, as commander of the Command Module, was key to mission success. Someone had to man the mothership orbiting the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on this forbidding new world.
Early Life and Education
Michael Collins was born on October 31, 1930, in Rome, Italy, to American parents. His father, James Lawton Collins, was a U.S. Army officer. His mother, Virginia Stewart, followed her husband in all his assignments around the world, and for most of Collins’ first two decades of life, he and his family lived in places such as Rome, New York, Puerto Rico, Texas, and Virginia, finally settling in Washington, D.C.
While in Washington, D.C., Collins attended St. Albans School, graduating in 1948. A career in the armed forces seemed to Collins the normal step at the time, especially since many members of his extended family had successful careers in the services, including his father and his brother. Collins was accepted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He completed his studies in 1952, getting a Bachelor of Science degree. He didn’t distinguish himself as a student but finished above average.
As a young graduate with a burning interest in aeronautics, Collins believed the United States Air Force to be the best fit for him. Because at the time, the Air Force Academy was still in its construction stage and didn’t yet have its own graduates, the Air Force assignments were open to graduates of the Army Military Academy. The Air Force was a preference since he also wanted to avoid any claims of nepotism, as his father was a high-ranking Army officer and his uncle, General Lawton Collins, was the Chief of Staff of the Untied State Army.
Michael Collins benefited from intensive flight instruction at several Air Force bases in Mississippi, Texas, Nevada, and California. Among other types of training, he also practiced nuclear weapons delivery. In 1954, he was transferred to a U.S. Air Force Base in France. Collins had a near death experience flying an F-86 Sabre jet fighter on a NATO exercise near Chaumont. A fire broke out in the aircraft and as Collins told of the incident, “Suddenly I felt a sharp thump, and the cockpit began to fill up with light-gray smoke.” With a fire raging, he had no other recourse other than to eject the speeding jet, writing, “…One instant I was inside the cockpit and the next I was tumbling end over end in a fierce wind blast.” He was able to break free of the aircraft seat and pull the parachute ripcord just in time, recalling, “Finally, at the last instant, I made a vain attempt to assume the proper position, hit like a sack of cement, and tumbled over backward into the soft plowed dirt of a farmer’s field.” Luckily, Collins was only shaken up and not injured. Per Air Force protocol after an ejection, he was to see a physician to be checked out. This turned out to be a challenge as the small base hospital was closed and the only physician on duty was one of the team searching for the pilot of the “big crash.”
During his stint in France, Collins met and started to date Patricia Finnegan. Originally from Boston, she was serving as a state department employee assigned to conduct airplane tours for Americans in France. Collins signed up for one of the tours and was smitten with her. They had a long engagement because, in 1956, Collins was transferred to Germany. The wedding ceremony took place in France in 1957 at the end of Collins’ commission in Germany.
Upon his return home, Collins enrolled in an aircraft maintenance course at the U.S. Air Force Base in Illinois, but he found the course highly unsatisfactory, calling it “dismal.” He completed it, however, and was assigned commandeer of a Mobile Training Detachment, a position that entailed a lot of international travel to various American air bases, where he had to provide training to mechanics and pilots. Collins later moved to a similar position in a Field Training Detachment, where trainees would travel to the main base.
Air Force Test Pilot
At the end of his stint as commander of the Mobile Training Detachment, Collins had more than 1,500 hours of flying on his record, which enabled him to attend the Experimental Flight Test School at Edwards Air Force Base, in California. His application was accepted in August 1960 and he immediately started training. Several months later, he made it to fighter operations.
Inspired by the achievements of NASA’s astronaut John Glenn, who had performed three orbits of the earth during the Mercury Atlas 6 mission on February 1962, Collins decided to apply for NASA’s second selection of astronauts. After multiple interviews and physical and psychological examinations, Collins was informed that his application had been rejected. This caused major disappointment for him, but he was determined to try again. Meanwhile, he began training at the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Base and in June 1963, when NASA announced a third selection of astronauts, Collins reapplied. In October, he finally received the positive response he was hoping for.
NASA’s third corps of astronauts, including Collins, began their journey at NASA with an intensive course on spaceflight, astronautics, geological field trips, and attending the Air Force Survival School in Panama. When the trainees were required to choose specializations, Collins decided to focus on pressure suits and extravehicular activities (EVAs, also known as spacewalks).
At the end of 1965, Collins was assigned as backup pilot for Gemini 7, which was completed successfully in January 1966. His next assignment, according to NASA’s rules for crew rotation, was as pilot of Gemini 10, under the command of John Young. One of the objects of their mission was to improve on spacewalks to recover from the near disastrous EVA of Eugene Cernan during Gemini 9. According to Cernan, after he pumped up the space suit to the proper pressure, "the suit took on a life of its own and became so stiff that it didn't want to bend at all." Cernan struggled to move inside his stiff suit, and as he left the spacecraft he began tumbling uncontrollably. Eventually he recovered and accomplished some of the EVA mission’s objects; however, his experience did expose problems with the suit and would result in changes to future EVA plans. The problems encountered by the crew of Gemini 9 placed additional pressure on Collins to perform two successful spacewalks during the Gemini 10 mission.
Gemini 10 launched on July 18, 1966, for a three-day mission. The mission plan called for Young and Collins to performing two EVAs and rendezvous with two Agena Target Vehicles. The Agena Target Vehicle was an unmanned spacecraft used by NASA during its Gemini program to develop and practice orbital space rendezvous and docking techniques in preparation for the Apollo program lunar missions. Collins’ first EVA went without incident, requiring him to open the hatch of the spacecraft, stand in his seat, take scientific measurements with various instruments, and photograph the earth. During Collins’ second EVA, he used a nitrogen-propelled Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit to assist him to maneuver over to the second Agena satellite. This Agena was powerless and had been left in space from a previous Gemini mission. The primary mission of this EVA was to retrieve a Micrometeorite Collector from the side of the Agena. The spacewalk was not perfect, and he reported, “I found that the lack of handhold is a big impediment. I could not hang onto Agena, but I could not get around to the other side where I wanted to go. That is indeed a problem.” Not able to hold on to the Agena, he clung to a set of exposed wire bundles with constant fear that his umbilical tether back to the Gemini spacecraft would become entangled with the disabled craft. After the exhausting spacewalk, Collins had trouble re-entering the spacecraft and had to have Young pull him back in with the umbilical. Collins’ experience on Gemini 10 further demonstrated the need for positioning aids and restraints, and that more planning would be required for future spacewalks. Collins set a world altitude record for a spacewalk and became the third American to perform an EVA. Overall the mission was a success and the two astronauts were able to conduct several experiments. They splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean and were brought to the recovery ship.
When NASA launched Program Apollo, Collins received a new assignment as backup crew for the second manned Apollo 2 flight. To prepare for the new assignment, Collins had to learn the intricacies of the new spacecraft, including the Command Service Module and the Lunar Module. He also trained on helicopters, which were believed to share the same landing conditions as the Lunar Module. NASA, however, canceled Apollo 2 and Collins was reassigned as Command Module Pilot for Apollo 8.
In 1968, Collins realized that when engaged in physical exercise, he couldn’t move his legs as usual. After seeking medical advice, he was diagnosed with a cervical disc herniation, which required surgery. He spent the following three months in a neck brace and the doctors recommended an ample recuperation time, which forced NASA to pull Collins’ assignment. The prime crew and backup crew of Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 switched their assignments.
Because Collins had trained for Apollo 8, he served as a capsule communicator, responsible for maintaining direct communication between the Mission Control Center and the crew. Apollo 8 was a success and accomplished all its main goals. In January 1969, NASA announced the prime crew of Apollo 11, consisting of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Neither the crew nor NASA knew, however, if Apollo 11 would be the mission to perform the lunar landing. This was entirely dependent on the testing carried out by the Apollo 9 and 10 missions, which had to check the feasibility of the Lunar Module.
Journey to the Moon
As Command Module Pilot of Apollo 11, Michael Collins received completely different training than his crewmates, Aldrin and Armstrong. He would spend countless hours in simulators learning the idiosyncrasies of the Command Module. His most important task as a Command Module Pilot was to perform the rendezvous with the Lunar Module by himself, and he compiled a 117-page book of possible rendezvous schemes for various scenarios where the Lunar Module would not perform as expected. During his training, he practiced docking at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
The mighty Saturn V rocket hurled skyward in the early morning hours of July 16, 1969, the three brave astronauts of Apollo 11 on their journey to the moon. Once they reached the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Lunar Module on the moon and accomplished the mission’s objectives, and Collins remained in the Command Module Columbia, in lunar orbit. Despite the solitude of his assignment, Collins felt deeply connected to his fellow crewmates and knew that his role in the mission was as important as theirs, even though he was not to walk on the moon. During a 2016 interview at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at age 86, Collins spoke of his time orbiting the far side of the moon when he was unable to communicate with Mission Control: “…It was a wonderful experience and it was nice in a way that you might not expect in the fact that it was quiet, silent, utterly, was good, not bad. It gave me a little time off from Mission Control telling me this, that, and the other, so I enjoyed the time.”
After the Lunar Module ascended from the lunar surface, Collins docked it with the Command Module, and the three astronauts were reunited. After three days of the return journey they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and were recovered by the USS Hornet. The three astronauts of Apollo 11 spent the following 18 days in quarantine just in case they had picked up some new pathogen on their journey. When they were released, President Nixon awarded them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and they began a 45-day international tour to meet world leaders and talk about their achievement. The crew returned to the United States in November, and President Nixon appointed Collins to the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. Collins gladly accepted and kept the role until 1971.
In later interviews, Collins revealed that during the mission he was constantly worried about his crewmates’ safety and the entire mission, stating: “I just thought there we so many unknowns that I would have given us about a fifty-fifty chance of being the first flight to land and return someone safely.” Collins was not alone in his fear of a possible catastrophic mission failure; President Nixon had already prepared a speech to give to the nation if such a tragedy would occur.
Life After NASA
In 1970, Michael Collins retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserves and from NASA. His remarkable career as an astronaut had included two space flights, 266 hours in space, and one hour and 27 minutes of EVA. In April 1971, Collins became undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution and director of its new National Air and Space Museum. He directed and supervised the planning and the construction of the museum, which opened in 1976, and later its ongoing activity, until 1978. Meanwhile, he also attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School.
In 1980, Collins was appointed Vice President of LTV Aerospace, in Arlington, Virginia. He later pursued independent projects. In 1985, he opened an aerospace consulting firm, Michael Collins Associates, based in Washington, D.C.
Michael Collins authored several books. In 1974, he published his autobiography, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys. This was followed by Liftoff: The Story of America's Adventure in Space, in 1988, in which he covered the main moments in the development of space programs. In 1990, he published Mission on Mars, a non-fiction book about manned spaceflights to Mars. Collins also authored a children’s book based on his life: Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut's Story in 1994.
Michaels Collins has lived in Marco Island, Florida, and Avon, North Carolina. His wife, Patricia, died in April 2014. He and his wife had three children: Kathleen, Ann, and Michael. He still enjoys his favorite hobby of watercolor painting.
For his impressive career achievements, which included eleven days in space for NASA and more than 5,000 hours of flight for the U.S. Air Force, Collins appears in the International Space Hall of Fame, U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame. A crater on the moon and an asteroid carry his name. In 1966, he received the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross for his involvement in the Gemini Project. Together with crewmates Aldrin and Armstrong from Apollo 11, Collins received numerous other honors and awards.
Biographical Data. Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Accessed November 18, 2018.
Collins, Michael. National Aviation Hall of Fame. Accessed November 18, 2018.
How Michael Collins became the forgotten astronaut of Apollo 11. July 19, 2009. The Guardian. London. Accessed November 18, 2018.
Michael Collins Fast Facts. October 26, 2017. CNN. Accessed November 18, 2018.
Barton, Sumner. “A Gemini Flight With a Boston Accent” The Boston Globe. July 3, 1966.
Collins, Michael. Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 2009.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not An Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2000.
Shepard, Alan, Deke Slayton, and Jay Barbree. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings. Open Road Integrated Media. 2011.
West, Doug. The Journey of Apollo 11 to the Moon (30 Minute Book Series 36). C&D Publications. 2019.
2016 National Air and Space Museum Interview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ynac8iSpywY