Well done Michael Collins, the “other guy” on the Apollo 11 moon mission

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, & Buzz Aldrin

Is it just me, or did the death of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins last week at age 90 seem to be little more than a blip on the media’s radar? I caught a blurb about it somewhere but it swiftly seemed to fizzle as a news story.

Unlike American legends Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and John Glenn, Collins was not a household name as an astronaut. But he was critical to the July 1969 moon mission. Collins went to the moon but never actually got to walk on the moon. What must that have been like, to get so close?

Michael “Mike” Collins was not a household name, but he was the reason the first men on the moon made it safely back to Earth. His role was to remain in the moon’s orbit on the command module Columbia, so Armstrong and Aldrin could reconnect with it after their mission on the Eagle and travel back to Earth.

I always wondered about that third guy on the moon mission, that “other” guy who never set foot on the moon’s surface and never shared in the same glory as the other two. If you asked the average American to name the men on the first moon mission, most could likely name Armstrong, and many might also name Aldrin. But unless it’s someone with firsthand memory of that time or a NASA nerd, they probably can’t name the third guy.

When Armstrong died several years ago, tributes poured in from the president, politicians, and from around the world.

It reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where the cast meets the “other guy” in the Three Tenors, the guy who’s not one of the opera giants Pavarotti or Placido Domingo, but whom nobody can name.

I wondered what it must have been like to get so close to the moon but not be able to set foot on it while your colleagues did.

During the day the other two were down there bouncing around, planting flags and collecting rocks, Collins continually orbited the moon by himself. Talk about Dark Side of the Moon. Instead of dwelling on his uniquely isolated situation, Collins said he was concerned for Aldrin and Armstrong and reported feeling relaxed and chill the entire time, according to his Wikipedia bio.

The Right Stuff

Collins was born in 1930 in Rome, Italy, to an American Army officer and served as a test pilot before joining NASA. Like the rest of his generation of astronauts, he had what Tom Wolfe called the Right Stuff. He was one of the first astronauts to walk in space. After his astronaut career ended a year after the Apollo mission, Collins continued to work in the government and later served as head of NASA in the 1970s.

I was happy to see in today’s Wall Street Journal a sweet tribute to Collins, To the moon and back with Michael Collins, from his fellow Apollo 11 pioneer Buzz Aldrin, now the last surviving member of one of the crowning achievements in human history.

As I suspect is the case for most other Americans who were born or came of age after July 1969, I grew up rather blasé about the moon mission. That has changed over time. Ten years ago I had the good fortune to visit the Kennedy Space Center museum in Florida and was overcome with pride as an American. I will never take any of this stuff for granted again. It gives me goosebumps to think of what our country achieved in a relatively brief period of time in the 1960’s and 1970’s, in the Gemini and then the Apollo space missions.

Never, ever, become blasé about this or take it for granted. When you think that at the dawn of the 20th century, travel still largely consisted of horse and buggy and steam engine. Only 69 years later, we were on the moon, 239,000 miles in the sky.

Make no mistake: These were some of the bravest individuals in the history of the world.

And Mike Collins was among them. May the heavens open up to greet you and the stars light your way.

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