Michael Collins is the often forgotten third astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission. He remained in the command module as Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon’s surface in 1969.
Michael Collins' space photo
The photo that Michael Collins took from space is one of the most powerful from the Apollo missions. As Neil Armstrong and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin returned from the Moon, Collins took a photo of the approaching lunar module, Eagle. With the Earth behind the lunar module, Collins is the only person in the world not in this image.
Whilst Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface, Collins was alone in the command module for more than 21 hours.
He even missed Armstrong's famous first words on the surface, as he was on the other side of the Moon without radio communication. In doing this he was the first person to orbit the far side of the Moon alone.
As Collins waited alone, he had no idea if Armstrong and Aldrin would be able to return as planned. Eagle had never been fired on the surface of the Moon before. If it didn’t burn for long enough or failed to take off when leaving the Moon, Collins would have to return to the Earth alone.
Whilst on the opposite side of the Moon, Collins was completely isolated, with no ability to contact anyone. During this time, Collins wrote:
"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."
However he was never lonely. Of his part in the Apollo 11 mission he wrote:
“This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two."
Third Man on the Moon
Michael Collins never actually landed on the Moon. By waiting in the command module whilst the first steps on the Moon were taken he ensured that Armstrong and Aldrin would be able to return to Earth safely. The third man to walk on the Moon was Apollo 12 Mission Commander Pete Conrad.
Michael Collins biography
Collins was born in Rome in 1930. He attended the United States Military Academy, before joining the US Air Force. When President Eisenhower announced that astronauts were to be chosen from US flight pilots, Collins realised he had a rare opportunity, to be one of the few people in the world to go to space. He signed up and joined the US Air Force Experimental Flight Test Pilot School.
Collins’ first spaceflight was as a pilot for Gemini 10, the 16th manned American spaceflight. The aim of this mission was to carry out a number of experiments, including an EVA (extravehicular activity), rendezvous, and docking.
Collins was a capsule communicator for the Apollo 8 mission. Stationed at Mission Control he communicated directly with the crew.
It was luck that took Michael Collins to the Moon. He was meant to be on the prime crew of Apollo 9 but a spinal injury and his need for surgery meant that he could not fly. Instead, he was assigned to Apollo 11.
What happened to Michael Collins?
After retiring from NASA, Michael Collins went on to have a varied career. He worked in government, was the director of the National Air and Space Museum and he set up his own consulting firm in 1985.
In 1974 he wrote an autobiography called Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys.
He is immortalised in pop culture in For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me by Jethro Tull and in 2018 film First Man.