It’s one giant loss for mankind.
Michael Collins — the “forgotten astronaut” aboard the first spaceflight ever to land humans on the moon — died Wednesday after a battle with cancer, his family announced. He was 90.
Collins, who flew on Apollo 11’s three-man crew with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, succumbed to the disease “peacefully” surrounded by loved ones, his relatives said in a statement.
“We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today,” it reads. “Mike always faced the challenges of life with grace and humility, and faced this, his final challenge in the same way. … We will miss him terribly.”
During the historic 1969 space mission, Collins piloted the lunar command module as it circled above the moon. But, unlike Armstrong and Aldrin, he never actually set foot on the space rock.
After the landing, Armstrong and Aldrin became media darlings and household names while Collins was much less-known, and was eventually dubbed the “the forgotten astronaut,” according to NPR.
But the groundbreaking voyage would not have been possible without Collins at the helm, NASA honchos said in a statement honoring his life and achievements.
“NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential. 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,” NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said. “His spirit will go with us as we venture toward farther horizons.”
Collins was born in Rome, Italy in 1930, and was the son of a US Army general. He grew up to become an Air Force test pilot before joining NASA in 1963.
On July 21, 1969, while Armstrong and Aldrin became the first men ever to walk on the moon, Collins was in orbit, 60 miles above them, reporting to Houston controllers that things were going “fantastic.”
“The thing I remember most is the view of planet Earth from a great distance,” he said in a 2016 NPR interview. “Tiny. Very shiny. Blue and white. Bright. Beautiful. Serene and fragile.”
As he orbited the back side of the moon, Collins was completely cut off from humanity, he said in the interview.
“The fact that I was … out of communications, rather than that being a fear, that was a joy because I got Mission Control to shut up for a little while. Every once in a while,” Collins said.
Francis French, space historian and author, later said Collins was robbed of some of the credit he deserved for the mission.
“It’s a shame that when people are asked, ‘Can you name the Apollo 11 crew.’ Mike Collins is normally the name that doesn’t come to mind,” said French. “Because in many ways he was the keystone of the mission. He was the one who really knew how to fly the spacecraft solo (the only person who flew a spacecraft solo in the entire mission) and the only one who could get all three of them home.”
After retiring from NASA, Collins went on to write several books, including the renowned astronaut autobiography, “Carrying the Fire.”
Collins’ family on Wednesday remembered him as quietly funny with a strong sense of gratitude.
“Please join us in fondly remembering his sharp wit, his quiet sense of purpose and his wise perspective,” the statement reads. “We also know how lucky Mike felt to have lived the life he did.”