Michael Collins (astronaut)

Michael Collins (astronaut)
Michael Collins
Michael Collins Signature.svg
NASA Astronaut
Nationality American
Status Retired
Born October 31, 1930 (1930-10-31) (age 81)
Rome, Italy
Other occupation Test Pilot
Rank Brigadier General, USAF[1]
Time in space 11d 02h 04m
Selection 1963 NASA Group
Total EVAs 2
Total EVA time 63 minutes
Missions Gemini 10, Apollo 11
Mission insignia
Ge10Patch orig.png Apollo 11 insignia.png

Michael Collins (born October 31, 1930) is a former American astronaut and test pilot. Selected as part of the third group of fourteen astronauts in 1963, he flew in space twice. His first spaceflight was Gemini 10, in which he and command pilot John Young performed two rendezvous with different spacecraft and Collins undertook two EVAs. His second spaceflight was as the command module pilot for Apollo 11. While he orbited the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first manned landing on the lunar surface. He is one of only 24 humans to have flown to the Moon.

Prior to becoming an astronaut, he had attended the United States Military Academy, and from there he joined the United States Air Force and flew F-86s at Chambley-Bussieres Air Base, France. He was accepted to the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in 1960. He unsuccessfully applied for the second astronaut group but was accepted for the third group.

After retiring from NASA in 1970 he took a job in the Department of State as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. A year later he became the director of the National Air and Space Museum. He held this position until 1978 when he stepped down to become undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1980 he took the job as Vice President of LTV Aerospace. He resigned in 1985 to start his own business.

He is married to Patricia, and they have three children: Kate, Ann, and Michael.


Childhood and education

Michael Collins was born in Rome, Italy on October 31, 1930, to United States Army Major General James Lawton Collins, who would serve in the army for 38 years. For the first 17 years of his life, Michael Collins would call Rome, Oklahoma, Governors Island, Puerto Rico and Alexandria, Virginia home. He took his first ride in a plane in Puerto Rico aboard a Grumman Widgeon. His father would often tell of how his own first plane ride had been in 1911 with Frank Lahm in the Philippines.[2]

After the United States entered World War II, the family moved to Washington, D.C. where Collins attended St. Albans School. His mother wanted him to enter into the diplomatic service, but he decided to follow his father, two uncles, brother and cousin into the armed services, and received an appointment to the United States Military Academy, which also had the advantage of being free of tuition and other fees. He finished 185th out of 527 cadets in 1952, the same class as Ed White. His decision to join the United States Air Force for his active service was based on both the wonder of what the next fifty years may bring in aeronautics, and also to avoid accusations of nepotism if he joined the Army where, among other things, his uncle, General J. Lawton Collins, was the Chief of Staff of the United States Army.[2]:7-8 The Air Force Academy was only in its initial construction phase, and would not graduate its first class for several years; in the interim, graduates of the Military Academy, Naval Academy (such as fellow astronaut Tom Stafford) and the Merchant Marine Academy were eligible for Air Force commissions.

Military service

After entering the Air Force, Collins completed flight training at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi in T-6 Texans, then moved to San Marcos Air Force Base and James Connally Air Force Base, Texas. He was chosen for advanced day fighter training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, flying F-86 Sabres. This was followed by an assignment to the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing at the George Air Force Base, California, where he learned how to deliver nuclear weapons. He transferred with the 21st when it was relocated to Chaumont-Semoutiers Air Base, France in June 1954.

During a NATO exercise in the summer of 1956, Collins was forced to eject from an F-86 after a fire started aft of the cockpit. He was safely rescued and returned to Chaumont AB, where a wait of several hours ensued, as the base's flight surgeon had joined search parties looking for Collins.

Collins met Patricia Finnegan, his future wife, in an officers' mess. She was from Boston, Massachusetts, and was working for the Air Force service club. After getting engaged, they had to overcome a difference in religion. Collins was nominally Episcopalian, while Finnegan came from a staunchly Roman Catholic family. Collins's father had been raised a Catholic, but converted to Protestantism when he married. The rest of his family remained Catholic.[citation needed] After seeking permission to marry from Finnegan's father, and delaying their wedding when Collins was redeployed to West Germany during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, they married in the summer of 1957.[3] Daughter Kate Collins, born in 1958, is a successful actress.

After Collins was reassigned back to the United States, he attended an aircraft maintenance officer course at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois. He would later describe this school as "dismal" in his autobiography.[2] Upon completing the course, he was posted to a Mobile Training Detachment (MTD) and travelled to Air Force bases, training mechanics on the servicing of new aircraft.

Test Pilot

With the help of his time as a member of an MTD, Collins accumulated over 1500 hours of flying, the minimum required for the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He successfully applied and reported on August 29, 1960, becoming a member of Class 60-C (which included future astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Irwin). Following months of intensive training, Collins was one of the few chosen for a position in fighter operations.[2]:13-17

Collins used to smoke heavily, but decided to quit in 1962 after suffering a particularly bad hangover. The next day, he spent what he described as the worst four hours of his life in the right-hand seat of a bomber flicking switches while going through the initial stages of nicotine withdrawal.[2]:153-155

The turning point for Michael Collins in his decision to become an astronaut was the Mercury Atlas 6 flight of John Glenn on February 20, 1962, and the thought of being able to circle the Earth in 90 minutes. He immediately applied for the second group of astronauts that year. To raise their numbers, the Air Force sent their best applicants to a "charm school". Medical and psychiatric examinations at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas and interviews at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston followed. In mid-September he found that he had not been accepted, something that was a blow even though he did not really expect to be accepted. Collins still rates the second group of nine as the best group of astronauts ever selected by NASA.[2]:25-33

That same year the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School became the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, as the Air Force tried to enter into the research of space. Collins applied for a new course offered into the basics of spaceflight (other students included Charles Bassett, Edward Givens and Joe Engle). Along with classwork they also flew up to about 90,000 feet in F-104 Starfighters. As they passed through the top of their huge arc, they would experience a brief period of weightlessness. Finishing this course he returned to fighter ops in May 1963.[2]:34-40

At the start of June of that year, NASA once again called for astronaut applications. Collins went through the same process as with his first applications, though he did not take the psychiatric evaluation. He was at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas on October 14 when Deke Slayton called and asked if he was still interested in becoming an astronaut. Charlie Bassett was also accepted in the same group.[2]:40-46

Space program

Michael Collins suiting up for the Apollo 11 flight

For the third group, training began with a 240-hour course of the basics of spaceflight. Fifty-eight hours of this was devoted to geology, something that Collins did not readily understand and in which he never became very interested.[2]:72-73 At the end, Alan Shepard, who was head of the astronaut office, asked the fourteen to rank their fellow astronauts in the order they would want to fly with them in space. Collins picked David Scott in the number one position.[2]:77

After this basic training, the third group were assigned specializations, with Collins receiving his first choice of pressure suits and EVA. His job was to monitor the development and act as something of a go-between for the astronaut office and the contractors.[2]:114 As such he was annoyed when during the secretive planning of Ed White's EVA on Gemini 4, he was not involved.

In late June 1965, Collins received his first crew assignment, the backup pilot for Gemini 7. He was the first of the fourteen to receive a crew assignment, though would not be the first to fly; that honor went to David Scott on Gemini 8. Collins never rated himself with the super athletes of the astronaut corps, like his fellow backup crew member Ed White, but he still tried to keep in shape, especially in the run up to Gemini 7, when he could have been called upon to spend 14 days in space.

Gemini 10

Michael Collins with John Young

After the successful completion of 7, Collins was assigned to the prime crew of Gemini 10 with John Young, with White moving onto Project Apollo. Their three-day mission called for them to rendezvous with two different Agena Target Vehicles, undertake two EVAs, and perform fifteen different experiments. The training went smoothly, as the crew learned the intricacies of orbital rendezvous, controlling the Agena and, for Collins, EVA. For what was to be only the fourth ever EVA, underwater training was not undertaken, mostly because Collins just did not have the time. To train to use the nitrogen gun he would use for propulsion, a super smooth metal surface about the size of a boxing ring was set up. He would stand on a circular pad that used gas jets to raise itself off the surface. Using the nitrogen gun he would practise propelling himself across the "slippery table".[2]:177-198 For the three day flight, Collins received $24.00 in travel reimbursement.

For his first EVA Collins did not leave the Gemini capsule, but stood up through the hatch with a device that resembled a sextant. In his biography he said he felt at that moment like a Roman god riding the skies in his chariot.[2]:78


The backup crew for the second manned Apollo flight. Michael Collins is on the left, and on the right Thomas Stafford blocks the view of Frank Borman

Shortly after Gemini 10, Collins was assigned to the backup crew for the second manned Apollo flight, with commander Frank Borman, command module pilot (CMP) Thomas Stafford and Collins as lunar module pilot (LMP). Along with learning the new Apollo Command/Service Module (CSM) and the Apollo Lunar Module (LM), Collins received helicopter training, as these were thought to be the best way to simulate the landing approach of the LM. After the completion of Project Gemini, it was decided to cancel the Apollo 2 flight, since it would just repeat the Apollo 1 flight. In the process of crews being reassigned, Collins was moved to the CMP position, since his new crew was Borman, Collins and William Anders. Deke Slayton had decided that the CMP should have some spaceflight experience, something that Anders did not have. Three years later, this change would be the reason Michael Collins orbited the Moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on its surface.[3]:267–268

Staff meetings were always held on Fridays in the astronaut office and it was here that Collins found himself on January 27, 1967. Don Gregory was running the meeting in the absence of Alan Shepard and so it was he who answered the red phone to be informed that there was a fire in the Apollo 1 CM. When the enormity of the situation was ascertained, it fell on Collins to go the Chaffee household to tell Martha Chaffee that her husband was dead. The astronaut office had learned from the death of Theodore Freeman in an aircraft crash, when a newspaper reporter was the first to his house.[2]:269-274

Following the delays to training as Frank Borman took part in the fire investigation, the crew of what would become Apollo 8 started back. It would be the first manned flight of the Saturn V and only its third launch. They would use the S-IVB third stage to boost them into a highly elliptical Earth orbit with a high point of 4000 miles.

During all this Collins and David Scott were sent by NASA to the Paris Air Show in May 1967. There they met cosmonauts Pavel Belyayev and Konstantin Feoktistov, with whom they drank vodka on the Soviet's Tupolev Tu-134. Collins found it interesting that some cosmonauts were doing helicopter training like their American compatriots and Belyayev said that he hoped to make a circum-lunar flight soon. The astronauts' wives had accompanied them on the trip and Collins and his wife Pat were somewhat forced by NASA and their friends to travel to Metz where they had been married ten years before. There they found a third wedding ceremony had been arranged (ten years previously they had already had civil and religious ceremonies).[2]:278-282

Medical problems

During 1968, Collins noticed that his legs were not working as they should, first during handball games, then as he walked down stairs, his knee would almost give way. His left leg also had unusual sensations when in hot and cold water. Reluctantly he sought medical advice and the diagnosis was a cervical disc herniation, requiring two vertebrae to be fused together. The surgery was performed at the USAF Wilford Hall Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas and he spent three months in a neck brace. It also removed Collins from the crew of Apollo 9 and moved Jim Lovell up to the prime crew. When the Apollo 8 mission was changed from a CSM/LM in Earth orbit, to a CSM-only flight around the Moon, both prime and backup crews for the Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 swapped places.[2]:288-294

Apollo 8

Having trained for the flight, Collins was made a CapCom, one of the only people who usually spoke to the crew during a mission. As part of the Mission Control's Green Team, he was responsible for the launch phase up to trans-lunar injection, the rocket burn that sent them to the Moon. The successful completion of the first manned circum-lunar flight was followed by the announcement of the Apollo 11 crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. At the time in January 1969, it was not certain this would be the lunar landing crew with Apollos 9 and 10 still needing to be flown successfully.[2]:295-134

Apollo 11

Michael Collins in Command Module simulator during simulated rendezvous and docking maneuver on June 19, 1969

As CMP, Collins's training was completely different than that for the LM and lunar EVA and was sometimes done without Armstrong or Aldrin being present. Along with simulators, there were size measurements for pressure suits, centrifuge training to simulate the 10 g reentry, and practicing docking with a huge rig at NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, just to name a few. Since he would be the active participant in the rendezvous with the LM, Collins compiled a book[2]:339 of 18 different rendezvous schemes for different scenarios including where the LM did not land, or launched too early or too late. This book ran for 117 pages.[2]:339

The famous mission patch of Apollo 11 was the creation of Collins. Jim Lovell, the backup commander, mentioned the idea of eagles, a symbol of the United States. Collins liked the idea and found a photo in a National Geographic magazine, traced it and added the lunar surface below and Earth in the background. The idea of an olive branch, a symbol of peace, came from a computer expert at the simulators. The call sign Columbia for the CSM came from Julian Scheer, the NASA Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs. He mentioned the idea to Collins in a conversation and Collins could not think of anything better.[3]:332-325 It was during the training for Apollo 11 that Collins told Deke Slayton that he did not want to fly again. Slayton offered to get him back into the crew sequence after the flight, and according to Collins, this would probably have been as backup commander of Apollo 14 followed by commander of Apollo 17.

Michael Collins sits in hatch of Apollo 11 Command Module after its return to the MSC's Lunar Receiving Laboratory for detailed examination

During his day of solo flying around the Moon, Collins never felt lonely. Although it has been said that "not since Adam has any human known such solitude",[4] Collins felt very much a part of the mission. In his autobiography he wrote that "this venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two". During the 48 minutes of each orbit that he was out of radio contact with Earth, the feeling he reported was not loneliness, but rather "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation".[2]:402

After spending so much time with the CSM, Collins felt compelled to leave his mark on it, so during the second night following their return from the Moon, he went to the lower equipment bay of the CM and wrote:

"Spacecraft 107 — alias Apollo 11 — alias Columbia. The best ship to come down the line. God Bless Her. Michael Collins, CMP"[2]:446

In a July 2009 interview with The Guardian, Collins revealed that he was very worried about Armstrong and Aldrin's safety.[5]

Post-NASA activities

After being released from a 21-day quarantine, the crew were feted across the United States and around the world as part of a 45-day "Giant Leap" tour. Prior to this trip NASA administrator Thomas O. Paine had approached Collins and said that Secretary of State William P. Rogers was interested in appointing Collins to the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. It was not until they returned to the U.S. in November that he sat down with Rogers and accepted the position on the urgings of Richard Nixon.[2]:454-455 In this position he was in charge of various areas including exhibitions, speeches and history.

A year later, Collins left this position to become director of the National Air and Space Museum. He held this position until 1978 when he stepped down to become undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. That same year he retired from the United States Air Force with the rank of Major General.[1] In 1974 he attended the Harvard Business School and in 1980 he became Vice President of LTV Aerospace in Arlington, Virginia. He resigned in 1985 to start his own consulting firm, Michael Collins Associates.[6]

Collins wrote an autobiography in 1974 entitled Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys. It is "generally regarded as the best account of what it is like to be an astronaut."[7] He has also written Liftoff: The Story of America's Adventure in Space (1988), a history of the American space program, Mission to Mars (1990), a non-fiction book on human spaceflight to Mars, and Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places (1976). revised and re-released as Flying to the Moon : An Astronaut's Story (1994), a children's book on his experiences. Along with his writing, he has painted watercolors mostly relating to his Florida Everglades home, or aircraft that he flew; they are rarely space-related. Until recently he did not sign his paintings to avoid them increasing in price just because they had his autograph on them.[8] Collins was a long-time Trustee of the National Geographic Society and presently serves as Trustee Emeritus.

Michael Collins and his fellow Apollo 11 crew members meet with President Barack Obama during the 40th anniversary celebrations of their flight

He has been awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Command Pilot Astronaut Wings, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal. Together with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, he received the Collier Trophy in 1969 and the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society in 1970. The International Astronomical Union honored him by naming an asteroid after him, 6471 Collins. Also, like the other two Apollo 11 crew members, he has a lunar crater named after him.

Collins lives with his wife, Pat, in Marco Island, Florida, and Avon, North Carolina. Carrying the Fire is dedicated to her.

Collins is one of the astronauts featured in the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. He also contributed to the book of the same name. In 1989, some of his personal papers were transferred to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.[6] He had a small part as "Old Man" in the 2010 movie, Youth in Revolt.[9][10]

Michael Collins, February 2009

In popular culture

English rock group Jethro Tull has a song "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me" which appears on the Benefit album from 1970. The song compares the feelings of misfitting from vocalist Ian Anderson (and friend Jeffrey Hammond) with the astronaut's own, as he is left behind by the ones who had the privilege to walk on the surface of the moon.

The main antagonist 'Friend' in the manga 20th Century Boys describes himself as Collins when asked for his true identity. This is supposed to mean he has been forgotten, even though he grew up with the rest of the characters, not unlike the way Collins is not as well known to the general population as the other members of the Apollo 11 flight.

The mockumentary Opération lune briefly claims Michael Collins to be so deeply disappointed by not having set foot on the moon that he allegedly has retired from any public life and that his current whereabouts are supposed to be unknown.

Swedish writer/illustrator Bea Uusma Schyffert has written the children's book The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon: The Story of Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins (Chronicle Books, 2003) (original title: Astronauten som inte fick landa, Alfabeta, 2000).

In the 1996 TV movie Apollo 11, Collins was played by Jim Metzler. In the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, he was played by Cary Elwes. In the 2009 TV movie Moon shot, he was played by Andrew Lincoln.

Michael Collins was made fun of by The Moon character from The Mighty Boosh. The Moon said no one really knows who he is so he would like to readdress the balance with a poem. 'Michael Collins...you got all the way to the moon and did not even get out of your vehicle.' 'Might as well have stayed at home.'


  1. ^ a b "Michael Collins (BGEN, USAF, Ret.)". NASA. http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/collins-m.html. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Collins, Michael; Charles Lindbergh (2001). Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys. Cooper Square Press. pp. 8–13. ISBN 0-8154-1028-X. 
  3. ^ a b c Hansen, James (2005). First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong. Simon & Schuster. pp. 346–347. ISBN 0-7432-5631-X. 
  4. ^ http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/history/apollo/apollo11/july21.htm
  5. ^ McKie, Robin (July 19, 2009). "How Michael Collins became the forgotten astronaut of Apollo 11". The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/jul/19/michael-collins-astronaut-apollo11. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  6. ^ a b http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaead/published/vt/viblbv00092.document
  7. ^ John Noble Wilford, "The Health Care Debate: The Astronauts," New York Times, July 17, 1994
  8. ^ NovaSpace biography. Retrieved February 14, 2006.
  9. ^ Michael Collins at the Internet Movie Database
  10. ^ Vancher, Barbara (January 8, 2010). "Michael Cera hopes that movie captures the heart of the book". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10008/1026601-60.stm. Retrieved July 3, 2010. "...astronaut Michael Collins filmed a bit part as a man selling a broken-down trailer." 


External links

Media related to Michael Collins (astronaut) at Wikimedia Commons

Government offices
Preceded by
Dixon Donnelley
Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs
January 6, 1970 – April 11, 1971
Succeeded by
Carol Laise

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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