"Exploration is not a choice... it's an imperative": The Life & Times of Michael Collins

When Michael Collins graduated from the United States Military Academy, he had to make a choice. At the time, a small number of West Point cadets could choose to take their commissions in the Air Force rather than in the Army, because the Air Force Academy had not yet opened. Aware that his family's position in the Army might lead to accusations of nepotism – his father a major general, his older brother a colonel – Collins opted for the Air Force. That was the first in a series of decisions that led him into the pages of history.

Applying for flight training, Collins relocated to Mississippi, where he learned to fly the T-6 Texan. He then relocated once again, this time to Texas, for more intensive jet training. Noted among pilots for his courage, he soon earned a prestigious invitation for advanced training at Nellis Air Force Base, where F-86 crashes would kill eleven of his fellow trainees over the next six months.

Seeing John Glenn orbit the Earth, Collins put in his name for the group of astronauts that would follow the Mercury program. Although turned down, he put in his name again, a year later, and became one of the next fourteen trainees for what would become the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Collins's group of astronauts, compared to the original group led by John Glenn and Alan Shepard, had reached more impressive academic achievements – but lagged behind the number of flight hours that the first test pilots-turned- astronauts had racked up. In that way, Collins was an anomaly. He had already logged 3,000 flight hours, more than 700 above the average. Even his jet hours alone, 2,7000, were more than most of his peers had flown in total.

Of his group of fourteen, Collins was the first to receive an assignment, serving as backup pilot to Jim Lovell for Gemini 7. That was June 1965, and thirteen months later, he took his first spaceflight, as the pilot of Gemini 10. During that mission, he oversaw a crew that completed more than fifteen research experiments.

Collins then took on capsule communicator duties on Apollo 8, which cleared the way for the first circumlunar flight – and then the historic Apollo 100 mission. Collins served as pilot, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became, respectively, the first man and the second man to walk on the Moon. Because Collins's duties were so different from Armstrong's and Aldrin's, he frequently trained alone in the months leading up to July 1969.

Asked how he felt staying behind on the Apollo capsule while his comrades were walking on the Moon, Collins later said, "This venture had been structured for three men, and I considered my third to be as necessary as either of the other two." His only concern was for Armstrong and Aldrin, keeping the mission on track and keeping the ground team safe.

Upon their return to Earth, the Apollo 11 astronauts met parades in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where congressmen, governors, Supreme Court justices, and foreign delegates all met to celebrate them. In the years after, Collins received scores of honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Collins would also go on to serve in multiple positions of distinction – as the Director of the National Air and Space Museum and Trustee of the National Geographic Society.

On April 28th, 2021, Michael Collins was the second of the three Apollo 11 astronauts to pass away, following Neil Armstrong in 2012. His memory, and the bravery and dedication that propelled him to the heights of aeronautics and then astronautics will, however, go on.