On July 20, 1969, humans walked on the moon for the first time in history. Everyone knows of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and their famous “giant step for mankind,” but there was a third astronaut aboard Apollo 11. Many people haven’t heard of Michael Collins since he did not physically step onto the moon, but Armstrong and Aldrin couldn’t have done so without him. While they walked the lunar surface, Collins remained in the pilot seat, orbiting the moon in the command module that would take them home.
The Command Module Pilot of the Apollo 11
“It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand,” Collins said in 1979 on the 10th anniversary of the moon landing. “Exploration is not a choice really — it’s an imperative, and it’s simply a matter of timing as to when the option is exercised.”
During the eight-day mission, Collins remained mostly in the pilot seat in the command module, Columbia. When Armstrong and Aldrin reached the moon in the lunar lander, Eagle, he stayed in the Columbia for 21.5 hours in complete isolation. “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life,” Collins later wrote in his 1974 autobiography, Carrying the Fire. “I feel this powerfully — not as fear or loneliness — but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.” 
When the other astronauts completed their mission and returned to the lunar lander, Collins had to re-dock the two spacecraft for the return flight. If something went awry, Armstrong and Aldrin would have been stuck on the moon and Collins would have to go back to Earth alone. They all were worried the Eagle wouldn’t launch off of the lunar surface since the ascent engine had never been tested there before. The three astronauts were prepared for the worst. Collins even recorded, “I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.” Fortunately, the lunar launch worked and Collins successfully docked it back to the Columbia. 
The Third Astronaut
Upon returning to Earth, the Apollo 11 crew did not receive the expected hero’s welcome. Instead, they went directly into quarantine for two weeks. NASA scientists were concerned they were contaminated with potentially dangerous pathogens from the moon. So the astronauts lived in sealed containers with white mice as a pathogen test. Since all of the mice lived, the crew was deemed not dangerous and released. But during that time, Collins befriended the mice, enjoying their company during the two-week isolation.
One of the most common questions people asked Collins as if he regretted not walking on the moon. But that role was never an option for him. He was the command module pilot of Apollo 11 and he couldn’t leave his position. “I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have,” he said in Carrying the Fire. “This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.”
Despite his critical role in the mission, Collins didn’t receive the same acclaim as the other astronauts. “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 space historian and author Francis 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.” 
Michael Collins’ Life and Achievements
Michael Collins died from cancer at age 90 in April 2021. But his journey as an astronaut began in 1952. After he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, he joined the Air Force where he became a test pilot and a fighter pilot. He was inspired to apply to NASA in 1962 when John Glenn orbited the Earth. NASA accepted him after his second application in 1963. Collins’ first mission was Gemini 10 in 1966. It was one of the two-man missions that acted as precursors to the moon flight. At that time, Collins practiced for the moon landing, testing maneuvers and undergoing a spacewalk, during which he lost a camera that became known as one of the “space junk” items orbiting planet Earth.
Then, in January 1969, NASA announced the crew of Apollo 11: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The crew trained for six months before the launch on July 16, 1969. After they took off, Collins noted how serene but fragile the Earth looked from afar. “As I look back on Apollo 11, I more and more am attracted to my recollection, not of the moon, but of the Earth. Tiny, little Earth in its little black velvet background,” Collins said on the mission’s 50th anniversary in 2019.
Retired from Flying
After returning from the moon and leaving quarantine, the crew went on a world tour of 25 countries. Collins noted that instead of calling the mission a success for America, people called it a success for all of humanity. He had decided it would be his last mission although NASA officials wanted to keep him as a pilot. Collins left NASA and became an assistant secretary for public affairs at the State Department. He enjoyed the people he worked with but sitting behind a desk all day was not for him. After a year, he joined the Smithsonian Institution and led the development and opening of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. One exhibit holds the Apollo 11 capsule including some of Collins’ personal belongings from the mission, including the flight checklists, a toothbrush, razor, and Old Spice shaving cream. 
- “The enduring legacy of Michael Collins, astronaut and chronicler of Apollo 11.” National Geographic. Jay Bennett. April 29, 2021
- “This Is What Michael Collins Did During The Apollo 11 Moon Landing.” Forbes. Kiona N. Smith. July 21, 2018
- “Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins Dies.” NPR. Russell Lewis. April 28, 2021
- “Michael Collins, astronaut who traveled to moon on Apollo 11, dies at 90.” The Mercury News. April 28, 2021