Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, who orbited the moon, dies

Emre Kelly
Marco Eagle
In this June 19, 1969 file photo, Apollo 11 command module pilot astronaut Michael Collins takes a break during training for the moon mission, in Cape Kennedy, Fla. Collins, who piloted the ship from which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left to make their historic first steps on the moon in 1969, died Wednesday, April 28, 2021, of cancer, his family said. He was 90.

Michael Collins, the NASA astronaut and retired Air Force general who piloted Apollo 11's mission to the moon and lived on Marco Island, died early Wednesday, according to a statement from his family.

Collins launched from Kennedy Space Center with crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 16, 1969, kicking off an eight-day mission that culminated in a successful landing. He was tasked with piloting the Columbia command module while Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface in the Eagle lunar module.

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"We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today after a valiant battle with cancer," his family said in a statement posted to his official Twitter account. "He spent his final days peacefully with family by his side."

Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who landed on the moon July 20, 1969, are commemorated in bronze figures in a new monument at the Appleton International Airport in Greenville.

Collins was 90.

Aldrin also took to Twitter to say farewell to his astronaut colleague, who briefly became the human farthest from Earth when Columbia swung around the far side of the moon.

"Wherever you have been or will be, you will always have the Fire to Carry us deftly to new heights and to the future," Aldrin said, referencing Collins' 1974 "Carrying the Fire" autobiography. "We will miss you. May you rest in peace."

Born into a military family in in Rome, Italy, Collins joined the ranks of military test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in California after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was formally named to the NASA astronaut corps in 1963.

Less than three years later in 1966, he was orbiting Earth as part of Gemini, the precursor program to Apollo. HIs Gemini 10 flight shared with command pilot John Young involved three days in space, docking with an Agena target vehicle, and even two spacewalks.

And just three years after that, Collins was encircling the moon as Armstrong and Aldrin touched down in the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969. While the duo spent nearly a full day on the surface, Collins prepared for their rendezvous back in lunar orbit and enjoyed a quiet period of reflection on the far side of the moon.

Though he never felt lonely in orbit, he was aware of the weight on his shoulders.

"Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface," he said in his autobiography. "I don't mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon,"

"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 over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side."

As he encircled Earth's closest neighbor, trying in vain to spot the lunar module down on the surface, he made himself a promise: he would not commit suicide if an ascent-related mishap claimed the lives of Armstrong and Aldrin. He knew it would make him a "marked man for life."

"My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter," he wrote. "If they fail to rise from the surface or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide."