History

Michael Collins, The Third Apollo 11 Astronaut, Never Got To Walk On The Moon

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It's common knowledge that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon. You may also know that Buzz Aldrin was close behind. The story usually ends there, just before mention of Apollo 11's third astronaut. Michael Collins took the long, courageous journey to the lunar surface with Armstrong and Aldrin, but didn't get the chance to get his boots dirty in moon dust. Instead, he waited—afraid, and very alone.

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The Underdog of Apollo 11

There were three astronauts on the mission that put humans on another world for the first time. The third, Michael Collins, was the only one of the three Apollo 11 crewmen to never actually walk on the moon. But as pilot of the Command Module Columbia, Collins played a pivotal role in the historic mission. As Armstrong and Aldrin climbed the ladder from Lunar Module Eagle down to the moon, Collins was holed up in Columbia to take photos of the lunar surface and just hang out until the other two were ready to head back to Earth. That came to more than 20 hours completely isolated in orbit around the moon, on the ready to reconnect with Eagle and bring the boys home. Sounds chill, right? Nope. Nope nope nope.

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

"Sweating Like a Nervous Bride"

Let's give the situation a little context: No one really knew what would happen to Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. That's uncertain enough, but Collins was waiting to find out while floating all alone as far as humanity has ever traveled. President Nixon even had a speech prepared if Eagle's engine were to fail and Collins came home alone: "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice." As haunting as that would-be speech are Collins' own writings while isolated in Columbia. Fear was an understatement.

As The Guardian reports, Collins wrote while inside the CM, "My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the Moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter. If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it."

Space.com reported on the words Collins wrote as he drifted behind the moon, cutting off his communication with Earth: "I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side."

Apollo 11 was Collins' second and final mission in space. And— spoiler alert—it was a groundbreaking success. Though he isn't the first or even second name that comes to mind when remembering the historic mission, Collins told The Guardian "it was an honour" to even be involved.

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