Michael Collins (astronaut)

Major General 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, when he and command pilot John W. Young performed two rendezvous with different spacecraft and Collins undertook two EVAs. His second spaceflight was Apollo 11 where he served as the command module pilot. While he orbited the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin performed the first manned landing on the lunar surface. He is one of only 24 men 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 for Public Affairs. A year later he became the first 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, Jr. Kate is an actress, and is best-known for her role as Natalie Marlowe Dillon in the long-running daytime television drama All My Children.

Childhood and education

Michael Collins was born in Rome, Italy on October 31, 1930. His father, United States Army Major General James Lawton Collins, served in the army for 38 years, and during the 17 years in which Michael Collins lived at home, he would call Rome, Oklahoma, Governors Island, Puerto Rico (their house was reputed to be the second oldest in the Western Hemisphere) 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 first plane ride had been in 1911 with Frank Lahm in the Philippines.

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 so went to the United States Military Academy, which also had the advantage of being free. He finished 185th out 527 cadets in 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 any accusations of nepotism if he joined the army where, among other things, his uncle, J. Lawton Collins, was the Chief of Staff of the United States Army.

Military service

After entering the Air Force, Collins completed flight training at Columbus, Mississippi in T-6 Texans, then moved to San Marcos and Waco, Texas. He was chosen for advanced day fighter training at Nellis Air Force Base, flying F-86 Sabres. This was followed by an assignment to the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing at the George Air Force Base, 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 doctor had joined search parties looking for the pair.

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. 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.

After Collins was reassigned back to the United States, he attended an aircraft maintenance officer course at Chanute Air Force Base. He would later describe this school as "dismal" in his autobiography. 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. He successfully applied and reported on August 29, 1960, becoming a member of Class 60-C (which included Frank Borman and Jim Irwin). Following months of intensive training, Collins was one of the few chosen for fighter ops.

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". Among other things they learned was that men should always have their thumbs to the rear when they have their hands on their hips. Following medical examinations at Brooks Air Force Base and interviews at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. 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.

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.

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 didn't take the psychiatric evaluation. He was at Randolph Air Force Base 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.

Space program

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 could not understand, and never became too interested in. 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.

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. 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 up with the super athletes of the astronaut corp like his fellow backup crew member Ed White but 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. He used to smoke heavily but during 1962 he had woken up with a terrible hangover and decided enough was enough. 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.

Gemini 10

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 didn't 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". For the three day flight, Collins received $24.00 in travel reimbursement.

For his 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.


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 why Michael Collins orbited the Moon, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on its surface.

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.

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).

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 and he spent three months in a neck brace. It also removed Collins from the crew of Apollo 8 and moved Jim Lovell up to the prime crew. And the Apollo 8 mission was changed from a CSM/LM in Earth orbit, to a CSM-only flight around the Moon.

Apollo 8

Having trained for the flight, Collins was made a CapCom, 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.

Apollo 11

As CMP, Collins training was completely for the CSM 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 of 18 different rendezvous schemes for different scenarios including where the LM didn't land, or launched too early or too late. This book ran for 117 pages.

The famous Apollo 11 insignia.png 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 couldn't think of anything better.

It was during the training for Apollo 11 that Collins told Deke Slayton that he didn't 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.

During his day of solo flying around the Moon, Collins never felt lonely. Although it had been said that "not since Adam has any human known such solitude", 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 was not loneliness, but as "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation".

After spending so much time with the CSM, Collins felt compelled to leave his mark on her, so during their second night on Earth, 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

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 for Public Affairs. It wasn't 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. 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 had 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. In 1974 he attended the Harvard Business School and in 1980 became Vice President of LTV Aerospace in Arlington, Virginia. He resigned in 1985 to start his own business.

Collins wrote an autobiography in 1974 entitled Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys. 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), non-fiction book on human spaceflight to Mars, and 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, and rarely are space-related. Until recently he did not sign his paintings to avoid them increasing in price just because they had his autograph on them..Collins was a long-time Trustee of the National Geographic Society and presently serves as Trustee Emeritus.

He has been awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Command Pilot Astronaut Wings, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Together with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, he received the Collier Trophy in 1969. The International Astronomical Union honored him by naming an asteroid after him, 6471 Collins.

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.

Unlike many of his fellow Apollo astronauts, Collins is not divorced, still married to Pat. Carrying the Fire is dedicated to her. They live together in Marco Island, Florida, and Avon, North Carolina.

Collins is one of the astronauts featured in the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.

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.



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