Michael Collins: Apollo 11's forgotten astronaut

In completing his job of orbiting the moon, Collins achieved the unwanted title of the galaxy’s most remote human.

Neil Churchill July 20, 2014

45 years ago today, the human race achieved one of it's most notable advancements in science, technology and outright bravado. It put a man, or two men to be precise, on the Moon - that's if you don't believe the conspiracy theory, of course.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, their names immortalised from the moment they trod on the lunar surface, became living legends. Children ran around their backyards, silver foil draped across their shoulders in an attempt to mimic their new heroes.

But despite what mainstream history stories tell us, they were not the only men who were part of the Apollo 11 mission. Yes they were the two men who walked on the Moon, but there was a third man who played every bit an important role in ensuring they achieved that objective. And yet, the vast majority would not be able to tell you his name.

Michael Collins was the command module pilot for Apollo 11. While Armstrong and Aldrin made one small step and one giant leap, his job was to orbit the Moon in the team's Command Service Module - spacecraft in layman's terms - keep it in one piece and await their safe return. As he did so he achieved his own unique title albeit one not many people would want: the most remote man in the galaxy. michaelcollinsteamAn experienced astronaut who was also part of NASA's previous Gemini 10 mission, Collins spent an entire day flying solo around the Moon. It was said that "not since Adam has any human known such solitude" and yet Collins claimed to have never felt lonely, even when he lost radio contact with Earth.

His role was of course far more complicated than simply playing taxi driver to his more famous peers and he took his job very seriously, writing a 117-page book detailing every possible scenario should the launch of the lunar module - the capsule which carried the other two from the spacecraft to the Moon's surface and back - not go to plan. In many ways he was responsible for the safety and success of the men whose fame would ultimately trounce his.

Collins was also the brains behind Apollo 11's famous mission patch. After finding a photo of an eagle in a National Geographic magazine, he traced the image with the earth in the background and the moon below. It became not just an an iconic image of the mission but of America as a whole.

After spending more time than anyone else in the Apollo 11 spacecraft, Collins understandably felt that he wanted to leave his mark. He wrote the following in the equipment bay: "Spacecraft 107 — alias Apollo 11 — alias Columbia. The best ship to come down the line. God Bless Her. Michael Collins, CMP". michaelcollins2 In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in 2009, Collins admitted he felt concerned about the safety of his two fellow astronauts, and how that in the event of their deaths he would be 'a marked man for life'. He even wrote in his autobiography that he would have considered suicide had they not returned.

Prior to becoming an astronaut, Collins was in the United States Air Force and piloted F-86 jets. He is one of only 24 people to have flown to the Moon and was the first person to have performed more than one extra-vehicular activity - activity done outside of the spacecraft, mainly spacewalks.

He was arguably every bit as important as Armstrong and Aldrin, playing a key role in Apollo 11 and the advancement of space exploration. And yet, his name is not one that comes to mind when history recalls that day 45 years ago.