Michael Collins - 'The Forgotten Man'

Published on 30 April 2021 at 12:50

"In 50-60 years from now, I think we'll be doing amazing things that we're not able to predict with any accuracy whatsoever today. People have this curiosity: they want to know about the universe, they want to know more about how it works - how it affects their lives.” – Michael Collins


On Wednesday April 28th 2021, the world lost, in the words of his obituary: ‘a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael (Mike) Collins’.  Referred to as the ‘forgotten man’, Collins accompanied his two more renowned fellow astronauts, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission which made the unprecedented achievement of landing man on it’s nearest satellite: the Moon. Although side-lined in the history books, Collins’ contribution to the success of the lunar mission and those preceding it cannot be forgotten.


Collins was born in Rome on Halloween of 1930 to a high-achieving US Army career officer James Lawton Collins, who was in turn a son of Irish emigrant Jeremiah B. Collins who himself hailed from County Cork. Michael’s fathers duties for the army brought him all over the US, notably Puerto Rico where he was educated for two years and flew a plane for the first time. One of his most endeared passions, his love for aeronautics would lead him down a successful career path in the US Airforce, where his curiosity for the future of flying could be explored. He was awarded his wings a month before his birthday in 1953 after partaking in a high-risk twenty-two week training programme where eleven pilots were killed throughout. Three years later he escaped from a cockpit fire in his F86 Sabre following a NATO exercise in France.


He would meet his soon-to-be wife Patricia Finnegan in an officer’s mess while she was working for the Air Force service club and they would marry in 1957 after having to postpone the wedding after Collins’ redeployment to West Germany following the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution. They would however go on to have three children in the years after their marriage, namely Kate, Ann and Michael.


By this point in his career Collins had accumulated well over 1500 hours of flight time which allowed him to enter the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He trained in cutting edge jet propelled aircraft including the aptly named T-33 Shooting Star and the famous F-104 Starfighter and would go on to co-pilot a B-52 Stratofortress while going through his first stint of nicotine withdrawal following his abstention from tobacco the previous day, having been a smoker for most of his life prior. Collins was inalterably inspired by the Mercury-Atlas 6 space mission which sent the first Americans into orbit and was the fifth manned spaceflight at the time of launch in 1962. Collins applied for a position in the second group of astronauts to be recruited in that year but was rejected. Undeterred, he completed a post-graduate course in basic spaceflight and reapplied to become an astronaut, this time being offered the coveted position.


In late June 1965, Collins received his first crew assignment: the backup pilot for Gemini 7. However this set him up to be part of the primary crew of Gemini 10 which is one of the two space programmes Collins is most known for. He performed two spacewalks on Gemini 10, the first human to complete two during the same mission while also becoming the first astronaut to transfer to another orbital vehicle, retrieving cosmic dust samples from a craft launched before the commencement of Gemini 10. Subsequent to Gemini 10 Collins was assigned to Apollo 8 but was removed from the crew after requiring surgery for a cervical disc herniation but was reassigned to the historic Apollo 11 mission. He still partook in the Apollo 8 mission but as capsule communicator in Houston. 


Apollo 11, depending upon its success would be Collins’ last mission. He was inspired by President Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon but had no intention of further exploration. Having performed the transposition, docking and extraction manoeuvre of the craft post-launch he would move into the moon’s orbit. During his day flying solo around the Moon, Collins never felt lonely. Although it has been said ‘not since Adam has any human known such solitude"’. Collins was often asked did he have any regrets not having stepped on the moon. A sharp and rational man, he always maintained he didn’t have the best position of the three Apollo 11 astronauts but he was infinitely delighted to have gotten the place he did. He understood his contribution was paramount to the success of the mission and in no small part either. He was reportedly the most witted and intelligent of the crew with a strong education and experience to back him up. In his autobiography he wrote "this venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two".


After Apollo 11 the now three American heroes rode in parades in New York and Chicago, had an official state dinner in the Century Plaza Hotel and in September of 1969 embarked on a thirty-eight day world tour across twenty-two countries. He retired from NASA in 1970 and accepted a position as Assistant Secretary of State and Public Affairs but found it disinteresting and instead became the first director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. He retired from the Air Force in 1982 with his fathers Army-equivalent rank of major general. He would go on to write several books and was showered in awards, his most prized being named a Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.


Above all else though, Collins wished like any father to spend time with his family which is why he retired from the strenuous life of an astronaut and may have even missed his chance to walk on the moon in pursuit of his wish to be with his family more. 


He is said to have faced the challenges of life with grace and humility, and faced his final battle with cancer in the same manner. He knew how lucky he was to have lived the life he did and it is up to all of us to honour his wish for us to celebrate his extraordinary life and remember him not as a forgotten man but a man worthy of forever being remembered.



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