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Michael Collins, the Apollo Astronaut Who Kept His Eye on the Bigger Picture, Dead at 90

By now many Americans have forgotten that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin weren’t alone as they took humankind’s first steps on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.

Orbiting some 60 miles overhead in the Apollo 11 command module, 38-year-old Michael Collins enjoyed a brief moment of peace and quiet as the module passed around the dark side of the moon, cutting off all communication with Earth.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Collins said in 2016. “The fact that it was quiet—silent, utterly—was good, not bad. It gave me some time off of mission control telling me to do this and that.”

That contentment and calm—in stark contrast to the late Armstrong’s stalwart statesmanship and Aldrin’s romantic volatility—defined Collins’ long life. The man who shepherded the first two men to stand on the moon died on April 28 at the age of 90.

Michael Collins was born in Rome, on Halloween 1930. His father was career U.S. Army officer James Lawton Collins, who would eventually fight in three wars. His mother, Virginia Collins, née Stewart, was an educated woman who traced her lineage in America to the years before the Revolutionary War.

Graduating high school in 1948, the boy followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He became a fighter pilot flying F-86 jets. In 1956, he was forced to eject from his plane after it burst into flames over France. “It was 10 percent shrewd planning and 90 percent blind luck” that he survived his flying career, Collins said later. “Put ‘lucky’ on my tombstone.”

Collins met his future wife, Patricia Finnegan, the daughter of a Massachusetts state senator, at an Air Force club. They married in 1957 and had three children. While serving as a test pilot in 1962, Collins applied to be an astronaut. NASA rejected him. “It ain’t pleasant,” he later said of his early failure.

He applied to NASA again in 1963. This time, the space agency said yes.

On July 18, 1966, Collins and astronaut John W. Young launched into Earth’s orbit aboard the Gemini 10 mission—America’s 16th manned spaceflight. Collins completed his first, modest spacewalk, briefly standing in the open hatch of the capsule in order to take photos.

The brief spacewalk shaped his future in ways Collins might not have appreciated at the time. NASA decided that for the Apollo 11 mission, the pilot of the command module should have “extravehicular” experience. Collins would have to stay in the module while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the lunar surface.

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