Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins Dies Collins was the crew member who stayed in orbit on the Apollo 11 command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Later he oversaw building of the National Air and Space Museum.

Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins Dies

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One of the Apollo 11 astronauts has died. Michael Collins was part of the three-member crew who went to the moon on the first lunar landing mission. But unlike Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, he never set foot on the moon. He stayed behind and piloted the command module as it circled above. Collins has died of cancer at the age of 90. NPR's Russell Lewis has this remembrance.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in July 1969...

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NEIL ARMSTRONG: Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.

LEWIS: ...Michael Collins was in orbit 60 miles above, listening in, just as busy and just as excited.

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MICHAEL COLLINS: Yeah, I heard the whole thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Well, it's a good show.

COLLINS: Fantastic.

LEWIS: Aldrin and Armstrong were on the lunar surface just under 22 hours. The world was transfixed, seeing them bunny hop along, take pictures and collect lunar samples during their single, short moonwalk. All the while, Collins circled the moon, looking down at the barren lunar landscape and peering back at Earth.

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COLLINS: The thing I remember most is the view of planet Earth from a great distance - tiny, very shiny, blue and white, bright, beautiful, serene and fragile.

LEWIS: As he orbited, half the time, he could talk to controllers, and when he was on the backside of the moon, he was completely cut off. It was this part of the mission that some dubbed him the loneliest man in humanity. As he recalled in a 2016 NPR interview, he didn't think of it that way.

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COLLINS: The fact that I was behind the moon and out of communications, rather than that being a fear, that was a joy because I got mission control to shut up for a little while every once in a while.

LEWIS: Mike Collins was quiet, reserved and funny. He was born in Rome, Italy, where his dad was a major general in the U.S. Army. Service and duty were a part of Collins his whole life. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later joined the Air Force and became a test pilot. NASA chose him as an astronaut in 1963, and his first flight was aboard Gemini 10. On that mission, he became the fourth human to conduct a space walk. As a boy, Collins dreamed of going to space.

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COLLINS: I used to joke that NASA sent me to the wrong place, the moon, because I think Mars is a more interesting place. It's a place I always read about as a child.

LEWIS: And a place he wrote about as an adult. Collins authored several books and one, "Carrying The Fire," is considered the best of all the astronaut autobiographies. Apollo 11 was his final trip to space, and he never dwelled on missing his chance to step on the moon.

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COLLINS: It was a chapter in my life, the shiniest, best chapter in my life, but not the only one.

LEWIS: Collins left NASA in 1970 to join the State Department. Later, he became the director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, overseeing its construction and opening in 1976. Of all the things he accomplished in life, including the rank of major general, he always liked it when he was outside alone at night, able to look up and spy the moon.

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COLLINS: You know, I've seen it a million times, but all of a sudden, I'll say to myself, oh, my God, I've been there. I was up there, you see? It kind of takes me by surprise, despite all these years.

LEWIS: In his later years, Collins didn't slow down. He competed in triathlons, loved fishing, and even took up painting.

Russell Lewis, NPR News.

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