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Scientist Spotlight: Michael Collins

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Lisa Winter

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91 Scientist Spotlight: Michael Collins

"When the history of our galaxy is written, and for all any of us know it may already have been, if Earth gets mentioned at all it won't be because its inhabitants visited their own moon. That first step, like a newborn's cry, would be automatically assumed. What would be worth recording is what kind of civilization we earthlings created and whether or not we ventured out to other parts of the galaxy." - Michael Collins



Michael Collins was born October 31, 1930 in Rome, Italy. He is the son of U.S. Army Major General James Lawton Collins and Kate Lawton. His childhood was spent as an Army brat and was accepted to the United States Military Academy following high school. After he graduated from West Point in 1952, he became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. His decision to join the Air Force instead of the Army was to escape rumors that he had only succeeded because of his father’s rank and also because his uncle, General Joseph “Lightning Joe” Lawton Collins, was the Army Chief of Staff.


Collins was drawn to NASA after seeing the first group of astronauts, known as the Original Seven: John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper, Wally Shirra, and Scott Carpenter. Collins applied to be in the second group, but his application was not accepted. When NASA called for a third group, Collins reapplied and he was chosen to be an astronaut.



While Collins was a backup for Gemini 7, his first mission was Gemini 10 where he served as Pilot with Command Pilot John Young. The 3-day-long mission from July 18-21, 1966 included docking with the Agena Target Vehicle (ATV). This was the first time the ATV’s propulsion system was used. Collins performed two spacewalks, totaling 63 minutes. 


Michael Collins returned to space again in 1969 as part of the famed Apollo 11 crew. On July 20, 1969, Collins remained in the Command/Service Module alone for over 21 hours while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong detached in the Lunar Module and became the first humans to walk on the moon. While he orbited the moon and communication cut off, Collins felt very alone: "I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”



Altogether during his career as an astronaut, Michael Collins spent 266 hours in space. After he left NASA, he became director at the National Air & Space Museum. Eight years later, he left the Smithsonian Institution and became a private aerospace consultant.


Michael Collins and his wife Patricia have been married for over 50 years and have three children. He is now retired and living in Florida where he spends his time fishing, painting, and “searching for a really good bottle of cabernet under ten dollars.”


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