Michael Collins, whose passing at age 90 we mourn today, had been a hero of mine since childhood. But I first noticed something special about him when reading his memoir, Carrying the Fire while researching my 2008 book about the Apollo Guidance Computer, Digital Apollo. Collins wrote the best, least maudlin of the Apollo-era astronaut memoirs, with the broadest and the most pragmatic perspective on spaceflight.
Writing of his childhood, he described an early encounter with the barnstormer pilot Roscoe Turner in the 1930s. “‘Roscoe had flown with a waxed mustache and a pet lion named Gilmore,” Collins wrote of the picaresque Turner, who epitomized the show era of aviation.
“We flew,” Collins continued, referring to his Apollo 11 crew just a few decades later, “with a slide rule, a rule book, and a computer.” Alone among his cohort, Collins recognized that Apollo astronauts were flying into new worlds in more ways than one, feeling caught between the ‘‘the colorful past I knew I had missed and the complex future I did not know was coming.” Collins captured the transformation of aviation in the twentieth century: Turner’s lion cub replaced by a computer.
I was fortunate to get to know and befriend Mike Collins late in his life, in a series of interviews and visits he made to my class at MIT on the Apollo program. He never fretted his status as the lone member of the Apollo 11 crew who remained in orbit and did not walk on the moon. In fact, he retained a sense the mission’s solitary awe for him, as well as gratitude, playfulness, and self-deprecating humor. He was as comfortable meeting with my daughters’ preschool class as he was talking to engineering graduate students.
After Apollo 11, Collins could have stayed in the NASA astronaut corps, and would almost certainly have been given command of one of the later Apollo missions, and likely walked on the moon. He chose not to, and retired from NASA in 1970, in part to spend time with his family. “You hear a lot of stories of kids from our era never seeing their dads who were astronauts,” Collins daughter once told me, “we never felt that way. My dad was around when I was growing up.” A true hero: the man who chose his children over a walk on the moon.
After a brief stint in diplomacy, Collins found his next mission, one as worthy and lasting as Apollo: directing the National Air and Space Museum, transforming an aging collection into the national jewel it is today. No other national museum, no other Smithsonian, celebrates a specific technology (we have no equivalent museum of railroads, or automobiles, or computers for example). In addition to inspiring untold generations of engineers and explorers, the Air and Space Museum (opened in the bicentennial year of 1976) links the material technologies of flight to core threads in American history and culture.
Thanks to Michael Collins, generations can visit Air and Space, marvel at the Apollo 11 Command Module he piloted, and learn how astronauts pee. Soaring exploration and humble humanity: a fitting legacy for Mike Collins.