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Michael Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut, dies at 90

Collins himself never stepped foot on the moon, but his accomplishments were part of one of the most famous space missions in history.
Apollo 11 Astronauts
Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins has died at the age of 90.Time Life Collection / via Getty Images

Astronaut Michael Collins, a member of the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon, has died at 90.

As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted humanity's first bootprints on the moon, Collins stayed behind to pilot the command module, circling roughly 60 miles above the lunar surface. As such, Collins himself never stepped foot on the moon, though his accomplishments together with Armstrong and Aldrin contributed to what remains one of the most famous space missions in history.

Collins' death was announced by family members.

"We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today, after a valiant battle with cancer," Collins' family said in a statement on Twitter. "He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side. Mike always faced the challenge of life with grace and humility, and faced this, his final challenge, in the same way. We will miss him terribly. Yet we also know how lucky Mike felt to have lived the life he did."

Collins was known for his quiet and unassuming nature, and in recent years had become an active voice on social media, where he shared "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," his family said in the statement.

NASA paid tribute to Collins, highlighting his distinguished career and his work inspiring generations of explorers.

"Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins," acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a statement. "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."

Collins was born in Italy in 1930. After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Collins served as a fighter pilot and experimental test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California from 1958 to 1963.

Collins was selected by NASA to become an astronaut in 1963. His first flight was a three-day mission aboard Gemini 10, which launched on July 18, 1966. The expedition conducted a docking test and double rendezvous in orbit, and during the flight, Collins became the third person in U.S. history to conduct a spacewalk.

Apollo 11 was Collins' second flight into space. In his bestselling 1974 memoir, "Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journey," Collins reflected on his solitary time in orbit around the moon — an experience that prompted some to call him "the loneliest man in history."

"I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life," Collins wrote. "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."

Collins retired from NASA in 1970. After leaving the space agency, he served as director of the National Air and Space Museum and as undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution.