In the Shadow of the Moon: the real story of Michael Collins

22nd Jun 2022
In the Shadow of the Moon: the real story of  Michael Collins

Astronaut Michael Collins can rightly be considered to be the pride of American astronautics. His place in the annals of space exploration is assured with his two historic missions. In the first, he proved the viability of extravehicular activities (EVAs) with his two spacewalks on the Gemini 10 mission. His second came with the flight around the Moon in the Apollo 11 command module Columbia while his teammates Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on its surface. Michael Collins’s achievements were overshadowed by their fame. Even after his death, many of his accomplishments seem unfairly underestimated. We will try to restore historical justice and tell you more about the outstanding astronaut Michael Collins and his biography.

Michael Collins’ childhood

Michael was born on October 31st, 1930, in Rome. His father, James Lawton Collins, was a commissioned officer and military attache in the US Army. Until the age of 17, the future astronaut Michael Collins moved from place to place, wherever his father was sent on duty.

The U.S. entry into World War II took the family to Washington D.C., where Michael graduated from high school in 1948. Michael’s mother wanted him to join the Foreign Service. However, Collins chose a military career like his father, brother, cousin, and two uncles. Michael entered the US Military Academy at West Point, from which his brother and father had graduated. In June 1952, he received a bachelor’s degree in Military Science.

By that time, Michael’s family history included men in high ranks. His brother was a colonel, his father was a major general, and his uncle was a general and chief of staff of the US Army. Michael did not want anyone to think that he joined the army to rest on their laurels. He instead chose the newly-formed Air Force, which had high prospects and needed young staff.

Military service

Future astronaut Michael collins in US Air Force
Michael Collins in US Air Force (first left in the bottom line)

During his time in the Air Force, Michael Collins was stationed at several military bases in the United States. He also served in France near the city of Chaumont. In 1956, during a NATO exercise, the future astronaut almost died during a flight. He managed to eject from his fighter when a fire broke out behind the cockpit.

In 1957, Michael completed an aircraft maintenance officer course at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. Collins later described those as the most boring courses of his life, as he flew very little, and the equipment was outdated.

In 1961, Collins underwent extreme flying training at the Experimental Flight School and became a test pilot.

Astronaut career

astronaut Michael Collins
NASA astronaut Michael Collins

Collins said the example of John Glenn inspired him to become an astronaut. John Glenn was a member of the Mercury program and the third American in space. In 1962, Michael applied to NASA and was selected from 32 candidates for Astronaut Group 2. The future astronaut passed all the examinations quite quickly but, surprisingly, was rejected.

Collins did not lose heart and enrolled in graduate school to study the basics of space flight. In addition to his class work, he flew the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, which could climb to about 90,000 feet. This allowed him to experience a brief moment of weightlessness at the flight’s peak. After graduation, Michael Collins returned to the Air Force but did not give up his attempts to get into the astronaut corps. In June 1963, he submitted a new application but did not pass the psychiatric examination. However, he persevered.

In October 1963, the Collins’ home received a telephone call from NASA’s head of astronaut training, Dick Slayton, asking Michael if he had not changed his mind about becoming an astronaut.

That same month, Air Force Captain Michael Collins was assigned to NASA’s Astronaut Group 3. By that time, Collins had flown almost 3,000 hours, with 2,700 of these in jets.

Project Gemini

Astromaut Michael Collins Gemini 10
Michael Collins in Gemini 10

The Gemini program was originally planned as training for the upcoming lunar missions. Its goal was to develop certain technological solutions that were later used in Apollo: cockpits for two pilots (hence the name Gemini), mechanisms for docking with other vehicles, and spacewalks.

The Gemini 10 mission launched on 18th July 1966, and lasted 2 days, 22 hours, and 46 minutes. The mission was to dock with a pair of Agena Target Vehicle spacecraft, using its engines to increase the flight altitude to a record 763 km, then return to a lower orbit, rendezvous with the second target and take radiation measurements. NASA gave special importance to perfecting extravehicular activity (EVA) tests, as the Gemini 9 EVA had proved troublesome.

The bulky spacesuits were about as comfortable to move in as rusty armor. Their insides quickly became hot, the windows fogged up, and they were heavy even in zero gravity. Collins went for EVAs twice, or rather one and a half times. The first time he only leaned halfway out of the hatch to take a picture of the Milky Way. In his memoirs, Michael later wrote that he felt like a Roman god riding a chariot across the sky. However, the “god” soon had his eyes water from lithium impurities that got into the air inside the helmet, and Collins had to return to the ship ahead of schedule. The second attempt was more productive. After the Gemini rendezvous with the Agena, Collins again went on a spacewalk, covered three kilometres, took a device from the spacecraft body, and came back. In fact, Michael Collins was the first astronaut to complete all of the planned tasks without serious emergencies, and in doing so proved that a safe spacewalk is technically possible.

Apollo program

Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins - Apollo 11 crew
Apollo 11 crew: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins

Apollo 8

Shortly after Gemini 10, NASA assigned the now-experienced astronaut to the backup and then the main crew of Apollo 8, the second crewed lunar mission. However, just before the flight, the astronaut discovered problems with his left leg movements. Doctors made a disappointing diagnosis — a cervical disc hernia. Michael underwent surgery, which took several months to recover from. NASA removed Collins from the flight, and James Lovell took his place as command module pilot. Instead, Michael remained on the mission’s ground team and was responsible for the launch phase prior to the trans-lunar injection.

Apollo 11

With the successful lunar flyby accomplished, Michael Collins, along with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, was included in the Apollo 11 crew, which was slated for the first lunar landing. As one of the Аpollo 11 astronauts, Michael Collins paid particular attention to preparations for the historic flight. He compiled a 117-page book that included 18 different contingency scenarios. He also designed the Apollo 11 emblem, which depicts an eagle (the Apollo 11 lunar module was named Eagle) on the surface of the Moon, holding an olive branch in its claws.

Apollo 11 launched on 16th July 1969. 25 million viewers in 33 countries watched this historic event. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were to land on the Sea of Tranquility. Later, Collins admitted in an interview with the Guardian that he was very afraid for his colleagues’ lives; if they died on the Moon, he would be forced to return to Earth alone and bear this mark for the rest of his life.

Why didn’t Michael Collins walk on the Moon? He piloted the Columbia command module and had other tasks — in particular, providing communication with the Earth, coordinating all stages of the mission, docking the modules, and returning the Apollo mission crew home. And Michael succeeded with all of those. On 24th July, Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The total duration of the mission was eight days, three hours, and 18 minutes.

Were Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong friends?

In his memoirs, Michael Collins wrote that the astronauts became really attached to each other, but it happened after the flight when the three went on a world tour. “Someone once called us pleasant strangers. We worked hard, but at the end of the day, we didn’t have parties, we didn’t drive around in color-matching Corvettes.”

What did Michael Collins do after?

In 1970, the astronaut left NASA and returned to his native Air Force. And 12 years later, Michael Collins retired with the rank of major general.

Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs

In January 1970, US Secretary of State William Rogers invited Michael Collins to act as his public affairs assistant. The invitation was unexpected, since the former astronaut Collins was neither a journalist nor a diplomat, but he accepted President Nixon’s request. It is worth noting that Mr Collins accepted the office at a very difficult time. There was a war in Vietnam, while the invasion of Cambodia and the shooting in Kent State caused a wave of protests throughout the country. He did not like his job, and after a year and a half, he resigned, with Nixon’s permission, to head the National Air and Space Museum.

Director of the National Air and Space Museum

The U.S. government had been considering the creation of the National Museum of Aviation and Astronautics at the beginning of the Space Race, but funding had proved elusive. Through the 1960s, the museum existed only on paper, and the exhibits were stored in different places. Only in 1972 did Mr Collins manage to secure $40 million from Congress for the construction of a museum. The building was opened four years later, and in the first month alone, it received over 1 million visitors. It quickly became the most popular museum in the world. The former astronaut served as head of the museum until 1978.

Michael Collins’ family

Michael met his future wife Patricia in the officers’ canteen while stationed in Europe. She was a social worker and helped single mothers. They got married in 1957 and lived in their home on Marco Island in North Carolina until Patricia’s death in April 2014. They had three children — Kate, Michael, and Ann.

When did Michael Collins astronaut die?

Michael Collins died on 28th April 2021. The cause was recurrent cancer.

Astronaut Michael Collins: interesting facts

  • Michael Collins was the first astronaut to perform two (or almost two) spacewalks during one mission, during Gemini 10. The total time spent in EVA was 1 hour 29 minutes.
  • After the Apollo 11 mission, Michael Collins received the highest state awards from 11 countries, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States.
  • He is listed in the US Astronaut Hall of Fame.
  • Michael Collins was not only an astronaut but an art enthusiast. He painted watercolours of his house and the plane he flew. For a long time, he did not sign the paintings so that the astronaut’s autograph would not affect their value.
  • Collins is also the author of four books:
  1. Carrying Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys (Autobiography);
  2. Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space;
  3. Mission to Mars;
  4. Flights to the Moon and Other Strange Places (reissued under the title Flight to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story in 1994).

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