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Michael Collins, 'forgotten astronaut' and member of Apollo 11 crew, dies at 90

Collins was the command module pilot of the three-person Apollo 11 crew, the first spaceflight that landed on the moon.
/ Source: TODAY

Michael Collins, the command module pilot who served as an integral part of the legendary Apollo 11 crew, has died. He was 90 years old.

“We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today, after a valiant battle with cancer," his family said in a statement shared by NASA. "He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side. Mike always faced the challenges of life with grace and humility, and faced this, his final challenge, in the same way."

Michael Collins
Astronaut Michael Collins wearing a spacesuit in June 1969.Ralph Morse / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

"We will miss him terribly. Yet we also know how lucky Mike felt to have lived the life he did. We will honor his wish for us to celebrate, not mourn, that life. Please join us in fondly and joyfully remembering his sharp wit, his quiet sense of purpose, and his wise perspective, gained both from looking back at Earth from the vantage of space and gazing across calm waters from the deck of his fishing boat.”

Often considered the "forgotten" astronaut, Collins was part of the three-person crew that was Apollo 11, the first spaceflight that landed humans on the moon. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, while Collins flew the command module Columbia alone in lunar orbit 65 miles above.

Apollo 11 Astronauts
Group portrait of Apollo 11 lunar landing mission astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.NASA / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

"Well, sure I wish I could have walked on the moon but I can say with the utmost honesty, I was thrilled to have the place that I had, to be one third of John F. Kennedy's culminating dream. " Collins told Harry Smith on TODAY in 2019 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the daring mission. "So I have absolutely no beef whatsoever."

According to NASA, after being selected to become an astronaut in 1963, Collins logged 266 hours in space, including the Apollo 11 mission and the Gemini 10 spaceflight in 1966.

He left NASA in 1970, and later served as director of the National Air and Space Museum and as undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was awarded honorary degrees from six universities, and received the Presidential Medal for Freedom among the many accolades he received for his service.

"It's a shame that when people are asked, 'Can you name the Apollo 11 crew.' Mike Collins is normally the name that doesn't come to mind," space historian Francis French said, according to NPR. "Because in many ways he was the keystone of the mission. He was the one who really knew how to fly the spacecraft solo (the only person who flew a spacecraft solo in the entire mission) and the only one who could get all three of them home."

Michael Collins on April 15, 2019.Eric Baradat / AFP via Getty Images

Collins was born in 1930 in Rome, Italy, and attended the U.S. Military Academy, graduating in 1952. In the early 1960s, he was a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, California, a program famously explored in the landmark Tom Wolfe book "The Right Stuff." (Collins was there after the period Wolf described.)

In a statement, NASA administrator Steve Jurczyk said the nation lost a true pioneer.

"NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential," Jurczyk said.

"Whether his work was behind the scenes or on full view, his legacy will always be as one of the leaders who took America's first steps into the cosmos. And his spirit will go with us as we venture toward farther horizons."