Astronaut/Test PilotEnshrined 1985 1930-Present
Fifty years ago, the world watched white knuckled and barely breathing as Commander Neil Armstrong took one small step into immortality. Buzz Aldrin took the second small step as the nation regained their composure. Command Module Pilot Michael Collins orbited-watching and waiting with the best view of them all. His role was as equally pivotal to the mission, and, in years to come he would continue to make irreplaceable contributions of significant public service to his country in aerospace and education.
Having been inspired by John Glenn’s extraordinary Earth orbit aboard the Friendship 7, USAF test pilot Michael Collins decided to become an astronaut. He applied, but was not initially selected. He persevered, and after completing the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards, Collins, in 1963, was among the third group of 14 astronauts selected for training.
Collins’s first assignment was as backup pilot in the Gemini 7 mission, but it wasn’t until 1966 that Collins earned a prime spot as pilot of the Gemini 10 mission. When Gemini 10 overtook its Agena 10 target vehicle, it became the second spacecraft in history to dock with another. After completing 43 orbits of the Earth, Gemini 10 landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean. Michael Collins was now the seventeenth American to fly in space.
In 1968, Collins, recovering from surgery, was moved from prime Apollo 9 team to Apollo 8. When the mission for 8 & 9 changed, so did the crew. Collins found himself as the CAPCOM for another extraordinary flight. Apollo 8 would be the first flight to leave low Earth orbit, reach the moon, orbit it and return. As the sole person who communicated with the crew during the launch phase through the translunar injection, Collins managed the portion of the mission that ensured Apollo 8’s rocket burn to reach the moon.
In January 1969, the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission crew roster was announced. Astronaut Neil Armstrong would serve as mission commander, Michael Collins would be command module pilot, and Buzz Aldrin was chosen to be the lunar module pilot. Armstrong and Aldrin would attempt to land on the moon, while Collins continued in orbit. Mission success would depend equally upon all three.
By June, the astronauts were exhausted. Collins, who had added hours of additional solo training, worked extensively in simulators to gleam the idiosyncrasies of the command module. In addition to the expected training, he compiled a 117 page book for the mission with numerous scenarios to have at hand if needed during their flight. Furthermore, Michael Collins also created the now iconic Apollo 11 mission patch.
On July 16th, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched on the powerful Saturn rocket. As the world watched, the first two stages fired and fell away. The third stage successfully brought Apollo 11 into Earth orbit. Over the Pacific, the spacecraft accelerated, freeing itself from the Earth’s gravity and began a trajectory to intercept the moon three days later.
On the 13th orbit, Collins pushed the button that separated the command module Columbia from Armstrong and Aldrin in the lunar module Eagle. As they drifted apart, Armstrong reported, “The Eagle has wings” and Collins tracked it optically, ensuring that the landing gear had deployed, before it arched over into a slow descent toward the crater-pocked lunar surface.
Collins continued his orbit while the Eagle approached the Sea of Tranquility. During his solitary vigil, Collins was an active part of the mission. Though he never achieved visual of the Eagle on the moon surface, he remained busy with essential tasks that readied the capsule for the crews journey back to earth.
Once Aldrin and Armstrong completed their work, they rocketed Eagle from surface of the moon to the base of Columbia. The space crafts closed together, turned into docking alignment and Collins carefully maneuvered the Columbia until it secured. After Armstrong and Aldrin transferred themselves and the lunar samples to the command module the three astronauts began the journey home.
When Apollo 11 commenced its approach to the re-entry corridor, Collins jettisoned the service module and skillfully turned the command module so the blunt end heat shield faced forward. As it approached the Earth, its parachutes deployed and Columbia splashed down safely near the U.S.S. Hornet.
After the extraordinary success of both missions and their significant enduring value to mankind, Michael Collins chose to never fly in space again. Instead, he took on another momentous mission that also is worthy of recognition for its enduring value to the public and, indeed, the world.
In 1946, Congress approved the creation of a National Air Museum, but without funds allocated for its construction. Initially, there was no pervasive support for the new museum within the Smithsonian because Congress had serious doubts that a museum that only displayed air and space craft would be of interest to the public. Therefore, the building was under-designed and a non-feasible plan remained for a visitor ship that would receive a trivial annual $2 million operating budget.
Despite the lack of essential support, it was always hoped that the facility would open on July 4, 1976.
Things changed in 1970. America had become excited and proud of the successes in space and there was a renewed interest in the (now named) National Air & Space Museum (NASM). Commander Michael Collins, inspired and supported by Barry Goldwater, ardently lobbied for funding and gained political momentum, and eventually, support. After persuasive petitioning by several influential leaders including Collins, $40 million was allocated for construction. Billed as “America’s Birthday present to itself,” Collins’ challenge was construction of the facility during the era of “Low Cost Alternatives.” The tight budget and building constraint made for a formidable leadership contest.
Collins, always astonishing when faced with a formidable task, managed to open the NASM under budget and within the desired time frame. The Smithsonian’s new museum was opened on July 1, 1976 by President Gerald Ford.
The NASM, an extraordinary success, received one million visitors in its first month and ten million in the first year. However, the initial triumph brought unforeseen problems that needed immediate attention. The facility was too small and the amenities for visitors were inadequate. To gain financial support and further develop the structure, Collins rallied and changed the techniques that shared information about the artifacts. The NASM contained the world’s largest and most diverse collection of objects, but necessary creative improvements were needed in the way it was shared. The effort to develop the strategy resulted in a robust, accurate and interesting set of programs that, to this day, remains the gold standard of aerospace curation in the world. Collins conceived the addition of lectures, children’s programs, tours conducted by hundreds of volunteers, family days and more. Under Michael Collins, who had the vision and the leadership skill to show the educational worth of the nations most prized aerospace artifacts, the NASM expanded physically, educationally and financially.
Michael Collins remained as the Director of the National Air & Space Museum until 1978. The NASM stands today as a testament to the vision and hard work of Michael Collins and his willingness to step up as the right man at the right time.
There are two chapters of Michael Collins’ career and both exemplify his worthiness to be recognized as a committed public servant. First, as a member of the team of the Apollo area astronauts, who put mankind before self, Michael Collins directly contributed greatly to the most significant aerospace event to ever take place. And, indeed, the lasting public service provided by his dedication, expertise and leadership in the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum will perpetually endure for the benefit of all who visit the spectacular venue at our nation’s capital.
Major General Michael Collins, USAF (Ret) has received many awards and accolades from around the world for his many courageous endeavors. Among them are the Distinguished Flying Cross (1966), NASA Exceptional Service Medal (1966), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1969) and the Legion of Merit in 1977. Collins, with the Apollo Crew, was awarded the Collier Trophy in 1969 and the Harmon Trophy in 1970. He has been inducted into four halls of fame including the Congressionally chartered National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF) in 1985.