The unsung hero of Apollo 11 – Michael Collins

We all know that Neil Armstrong was the first person to step on the moon. We also know he was followed by Buzz Aldrin. Most people however will fail to name the third astronaut. Some may even forget there was a third person onboard. Command Module Pilot Michael Collins is the forgotten Apollo 11 astronaut. He had the more nerve wracking task of them three. No he didn’t walk on the moon, but he knew that it was possible that he had to leave his fellow astronauts behind on the moon. 

Michael Collins on flight in Apollo 11. Picture NASA.

Before Apollo 11

Michael Collins already had been in space before taking off in Apollo 11. Three years prior to that famous take off, on July 18, 1966, he and John Young took off with Gemini 10. Gemini had to rendevouz with two Agena Target Vehicles and Collins had to perform two EVA’s (spacewalks), the second one on his own. He became the first person to do two spacewalks during one mission. He also became the first person to visit another space vehicle in orbit. These are quite some accomplishments, all prior to the Apollo program. 

Collins was training already for Apollo 9 but started to notice that his legs weren’t working as they should be and that his knees started to give away. He went to see the doctor, even though he didn’t want to because he knew what this meant. And indeed, he had to undergo surgery for cervical disc herniation and had to wear a neck brace for three months. He was removed from the Apollo 9 crew but as he had trained well, he was made capsule communicator for Apollo 8. There he directly communicated with the Apollo 8 crew during their historic flight which brought us the famous earth rise picture. The recovery went well and he was assigned to Apollo 11, the mission that would, if the previous didn’t fail, land on the moon. 


Michael Collins wasn’t to land on the moon. He often trained separated and differently from Aldrin and Armstrong. It must have been tough to prepare mostly alone. That said, his fellow astronauts may have trained together and relied on each other blindly, they never became close in a more friendship kind of way. Strange for two people who would share this once in a lifetime moment together, travelling in quite the small spaceship. Collins also wrote about 18 different rendezvous possibilities, also those that failed. That book ran a 117 pages. He also designed the mission patch. 

His main training was of course operating the Columbia module. He had to make sure the module would remain in orbit around the moon, run system checks, perform moon observations and stay in contact with mission control. But he also had to make sure that Armstrong and Aldrin not just landed safely, but he had the task of taking them back home as well. And if anything should go wrong, he was instructed not to be the hero but return home. Alone. 

The risks

We all know how the mission ended. Armstrong and Aldrin landed safely on the moon, spent 21 hours on the surface and made it back to the command module Columbia and went home safely. We know that, but they weren’t so sure. The lunar module had been tested over and over again and the astronauts had trained numerous times. But they were never able to do it on the moon or similar circumstances. No one knew exactly what these circumstances would be exactly because no one had ever been there. 

If the thrusters weren’t working properly, Armstrong and Aldrin could have ended up in lower orbit around the moon for all eternity without Collins being able to do anything to get them on board. Or they would crash back on the surface. Another possibility was that the Eagle would miss it’s target and shoot into space to Pete knows where. Either of those scenarios, the two astronauts would survive until the oxygen ran out, unless other malfunctions occurred or madness had driven them to other drastic measures. There was a 50/50 chance, the three astronauts calculated among each other, that only Collins would make it home. A terrible thought to carry around. 

Feeling lonely

It weighed heavy on Collins’ mind but he performed his duties with great professionalism. But he admits that releasing the Eagle to the lunar surface was a nerve wracking experience. He told the other two to remain in constant contact with them in fear of losing them. The communication was broken 30 times while Collins was on the far side of the moon. Contact to ground control was also broken during that time. 3 billion people on the other side of the moon, and who knows what on Collins’ side. These were the hardest time for Collins, he was indeed the loneliest man in the world, a figure of speech. Anything could happen during that period, and he just wouldn’t know about it. 

The moment Armstrong and Aldrin left the Lunar surface were the hardest. This was it. This was the moment that would determine whether Collins would fly home alone or as a team. He wasn’t the only one aware of this. President Nixon had a speech ready in case the two moon walkers wouldn’t return home. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” it starts. It’s a beautiful and respectful speech which luckily never had to be used. 

Forgotten astronaut

No one was more relieved than Collins. He said that he would have fulfilled his duty and would have returned home, rather than taking other drastic measures, which wouldn’t have been a strange thing to do under these circumstances. He would have been known as the astronaut that survived the fateful Apollo 11 mission, the survivor of men’s first exploration of an alien world. Now he is the forgotten astronaut. I think it’s safe to say that Michael Collins wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. 

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