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To the Moon and Back with Michael Collins, 1930-2021

Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins during training for the first lunar mission in Cape Kennedy, Florida, June 19, 1969.


Associated Press

Finding words is difficult. The death at the age of 90 of Michael Collins, the pilot of the command module for Apollo 11, is the loss of a friend, a staunch patriot and a fearless explorer. Neil Armstrong and I were blessed to have Mike as our crew on America’s first manned mission to the moon, in July 1969. No one is more responsible for our success – to take us out and take us home safely – than Mike.

What Mike gave to our nation is hard to express. He was a fearless test pilot, a hardened scientist, a cheerful teammate; he was calm under pressure, self-disciplined, knew all the details of Colombia’s command module. He was also a lifelong friend, focused on others and often the toughest on himself.

Mike’s book, Carrying the Fire: Astronaut’s Journeys (1974), is detailed and appropriately titled. A talented writer, Mike put into words the uniqueness of our shared experience – his, Neil’s, mine and our nation’s. He focuses on the mission, the team, the nation and the journey, less on himself.

Mike was the one who orbited the moon 30 times alone, focused on us, making sure we stayed close. He was the one who on Gemini 10 traveled in space in 1966, proving orbital encounters with another spacecraft, a vital step in America’s eventual lunar missions. And Mike was the first among the friends – kind, self-destructive and always quick with a smile.

In a way, Mike was our engine, the one who “carried the fire” to the moon and back. Mastering it with the command module preceded it. The entire corps of astronauts honored his devotion. His mastery gave us confidence. Whatever happened on that first mission, Mike would figure out how to get us home. And he did.

After the moon, Mike continued to serve. In 1970, he became Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, helping America inspire others, leading with grace, spreading “peace for all mankind.” The following year he became director of the Museum of Air and Space, and in 1978 was promoted to Undersecretary of the Smithsonian.

Mike himself was a source of peace and merriment, whimsically raising a mustache on our lunar mission, which he demonstrated later, in quarantine, with his distinctive smile. Mike was the best in America, a man who instinctively devoted himself to others, a lifelong commitment. He felt that no mission was too difficult, no challenge other than trials, and that we should always be ready to serve. He was that example. I will miss my friend. America had no better friend.

Mr. Aldrin is a former astronaut. As part of the Apollo 11 mission, he was one of the first people to go to the moon.

Compared to highlights from the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, scientific historian James Burke says that “my phone could take Apollo 11 to the moon and back, compared to the computer they had on board at the time.” Image: NASA / AFP / Getty

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Appears in print on May 1, 2021.

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