back to article Michael Collins, once the world's 'loneliest man,' is dead. If that name means little or nothing to you, read this

Michael Collins, the one Apollo 11 astronaut too few remember, has died of cancer at the age of 90. Collins was the man who stayed in the Command Module Columbia alone in lunar orbit while his crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history by setting foot on the Moon. But he never begrudged the pair for their time on …

  1. ecarlseen

    If that name means little or nothing to you...

    ... just hand in your geek card now and start reading TMZ instead.

    1. claimed

      Re: If that name means little or nothing to you...

      ... I envy you; like someone who has never seen {my favourite film}, you're in for a treat which I will never again experience for the first time.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: If that name means little or nothing to you...

        An interesting and possibly cerebral response. Certainly too cerebral for me as my first thought was "Why would I want to read about time zone data (again)?"

  2. I code for the bacon


    When he was "The world's loneliest man" he wasn't only the "loneliest" man alive... He was the "loneliest" man in all humankind's history, up to that point.

    1. stiine Silver badge

      Re: Well...

      Except, perhaps, for the last one.

      1. G.Y.

        Re: Well...

        and the 1st one (until Eve was created)

    2. jake Silver badge

      Re: Well...

      Except he himself said he didn't feel lonely, that was an invention of the Press. What he felt was "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation".

      He also didn't feel left out of the landing. The way he saw it, the mission was designed for a three man crew, with none of the three having a more or less important job than the other two.

      Words to live by.

      1. RegGuy1 Silver badge

        Re: Well...

        Indeed, and he got to look out of the window to see the whole of the moon, front and back, oh so so near to him. It must have been absolutely spell-binding. And then it had to stop because the other two came back... ;-)

        I remember vividly the excitement over those few years. Patrick Moore and the great James Burke explaining it all to me, a kid who hadn't yet turned 10. Like everyone I was captivated.

        Rest in peace!

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Well...

        "Loneliest" has established use as referring not only to the subjective quale (the feeling of being isolated) but to the objective state of isolation from other people. It's a perfectly apt description regardless of how Collins felt about it.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Well...

          I'm pretty happy acquiescing to Mr. Collins description of how he felt on the occasion over the overly enthusiastic inventions of the Press.

    3. macjules

      Re: Well...

      I should think someone called Adam owns that privilege.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Well...

        Yeah, and look what happened to him. Some bastard pulled out one of his ribs and BANG! there's a woman to nag at him.

        Want an apple? Want an apple? ...

        Oh fuck!

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Well...

          Yeah, but it was the trouser snake wot caused all the kerfuffle.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: Well...

            Assumes facts not in evidence. The myth is pretty clear about the lack of trousers at that time and place.

      2. werdsmith Silver badge

        Re: Well...

        I should think someone called Adam owns that privilege.

        Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.....

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Well...

          Some people even use it as an aid in learning.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Well...

          Don't you ever, don't you ever......

      3. Muscleguy Silver badge

        Re: Well...

        Y-Chromosome Adam may not have lived anywhere near the time of X-Chromosome Eve but he absolutely was not lonely since he quite obviously managed to procreate successfully. Both likely lived in tribal groups where loneliness is a luxury not always achievable.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Well...

          The generally accepted name of our matrilineal most recent common ancestor is the Mitochondrial Eve. You can blame Roger Lewin, writing in the October 1987 issue of Science, for using the biblical name. Daft move, at best. His editor(s) should be taken out behind the barn and flogged for letting that one through.

  3. Astrohead

    RIP Michael Collins

    "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 only knows what on this side"

    RIP Michael Collins.

    1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

      Re: RIP Michael Collins

      RIP indeed.

      We are old enough to remember the moon landing, as children, and we went to Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary at the Air & Space Museum. During that visit we were fortunate enough to hear Collins speak, in person, at two events (and also Buzz at one of them). His talks were wonderful - he came over as both a great man and a nice man, and I will not forget hearing his insights into what they achieved, and the international impact of the moon landing and the whole space program.

      Despite his views on heroes, I consider having had the chance to see and listen to both him and Buzz in the flesh as really meeting my heroes.

      1. ShadowDragon8685

        Re: RIP Michael Collins

        Probably better to hero-worship men who have literally flown to the moon by virtue of their own unflagging merit, than gonzo anti-vaxxers with good PR and people who sell vaginal-scented goop.

    2. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: RIP Michael Collins

      Just Three Billion people, wow ... we've come a long way. Today we mourn. Tomorrow we get back to work on fixing this planet.

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: RIP Michael Collins

        Today we mourn. Tomorrow we get back to work on fixing this planet.

        A great sentiment, except that it implies that we're already trying, and we really aren't (as a species, there are some individuals/groups who are, but it's not a significant enough proportion).

      2. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: RIP Michael Collins

        >Just Three Billion people, wow ... we've come a long way.

        Yes, however, even that number living at then-current first-world standards and consumption levels was assessed to be unsustainable...

        >Tomorrow we get back to work on fixing this planet.

        Trouble is, no one wants to address the (population) elephant in the room...

        1. Boothy

          Re: RIP Michael Collins

          Probably because there is no population elephant in the room.

          The UN did quite a nice summary (pdf) of many population sustainability studies back in 2012, 65 of them to be exact.

          By far the most common estimates for a sustainable population on Earth, put the number at <=8 billion (20 studies) , with the second most common estimate being at <=16 billion (14 studies).

          Only 7 studies reckoned <=4 billion, with 6 at <=2 billion.

          At the same time, 6 studies reckoned <=32 billion, and 7 studies said <=64 billion.

          The remaining handful ranged from <= 128 billion to <=1,000 billion!

          Obviously lots of guess work in these studies, hence why the UN wanted to do a summary of many of them, to get some sort of rough consensus.

          We are current at almost 7.9 billion, and still growing, but the growth rate is slowing. Some countries such as Japan now have declining populations, and many developed nations are expected to follow this trend over the next few decades.

          Current estimates are that some time around, or shortly after the year 2100, we'll hit max population, at around 10 to 11 billion, at which point we start to see declining numbers.

          This still puts us reasonably close to the <=8 billion mark, and comfortably within the second most popular estimate of <=16 billion.

          Obviously this needs to go hand in hand with effective resource management, improved recycling, expanding use of renewables, reduce or remove dependencies on non renewables, better access to education and birth control, especially in developing nations etc etc.

          1. Roland6 Silver badge

            Re: RIP Michael Collins

            >Probably because there is no population elephant in the room.

            I see you stopped reading...

            There are two parts to this issue: firstly, just how many people can the world feed, secondly, at what standard of living - the consensus is not all will be enjoying the levels of consumption we in the UK and US have enjoyed for many decades... Hence there is an elephant in the room, which you and others here have demonstrated they don't want to see.

          2. bombastic bob Silver badge

            Re: RIP Michael Collins

            more efficient use of farm/ranch land is probably the biggest limiting factor. The USA is actually still pretty "empty" and has capacity for much, much more. Then you need to get water to those farmlands, but we have invented desalination plants, which makes the cost higher but not unaffordable.

            Then as long as there's enough food, fuel and electricity [I hear a fusion reactor is being built in France, one that is a huge step to viable fusion power] we can build both up AND down, live on the water, make artificial islands, and so on. Living space won't be a problem, even WITHOUT living in a "cubby hole".

            This suggests that "sustain a population" needs to be defined to include human adaptation.

            Still I'd rather spread around the galaxy. I want a NEW FRONTIER!!!

          3. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

            Re: RIP Michael Collins

            So 33 out of 65 studies put the maximum sustainable population at 8 billion or less. It sounds like there's a 50 percent chance we are already at the maximum "sustainable" population or well beyond it, with no end of growth in sight. If the worst climate change predictions are correct, then well beyond it is the likeliest.

        2. Anonymous Coward

          Re: RIP Michael Collins

          There is no population elephant. As an example, China's population may now be shrinking (there seems to be some doubt about this: there's recently been a census but the results have been delayed with there being rumours that this is because the population is now declining. It looks like it probably isn't yet in fact but it will soon be (source The Economist, you may need a subscription to see it though: I am not sure). What is happening in China either has already happened elsewhere or will in due course. People don't actually like having lots of children, it turns out.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: RIP Michael Collins

            "People don't actually like having lots of children, it turns out."

            Some People don't actually like having lots of children, it turns out.

            In the developed economies it is still common to hear people being criticised for deciding not to have any children. The view that they are "selfish" ignores the extra resources they can contribute to help everyone else's children. Historically the education of children in villages was often provided by single people in "Dame" or "Penny" schools.

            In the developing economies large families are often insurance policies against high rates of mortality - and lack of state enabled social welfare. Education of women and improved health care soon reduce the number of babies being born.

            In all countries - several large religious organisations still tell their congregations that it is their divine duty to have many children. They also do their best to ban effective methods of family planning by coercion or influencing civil laws.

        3. MyffyW Silver badge

          Re: RIP Michael Collins

          The best way to control population is to fund education, and in particular girls education to the same level as boys. Society gets the benefit of a more educated workforce, rising living standards mean fewer infant deaths, less push to have large families. Ambition is the best contraceptive.

          1. bombastic bob Silver badge

            Re: RIP Michael Collins

            actually education helps people to become SELF SUFFICIENT _and_ improves their quality of life in a modern industrial society.

            Not sure why ambition itself would be considered to be "a contraceptive" (it suggests, by converse, that laziness would be an aphrodisiac). But maybe I can think of OTHER things that might cause that mis-perception. I'll leave THAT topic alone, in here.

            I don't believe Earth is being overpopulated. But the human desire to expand CAN go into outer space, and I want that VERY much. Collins was an early pioneer in that regard.

            He had the chance to be the PILOT on a spacecraft delivering passengers to the moon, and then to bring them home again.

            1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge

              Re: RIP Michael Collins

              "Ambition = contraceptive" because education and ambition give people the incentive to do something besides reproduce. This is why regressive societies such as American religious conservatives fight female education: they don't want their women getting uppity and refusing to pop out a dozen kids.

              1. jake Silver badge

                Re: RIP Michael Collins

                I think you'll find that religions in general fight actual education .... if they were to allow the teaching of children to think for themselves, religion would be a footnote in history within a couple generations.

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  Re: RIP Michael Collins

                  "[...] religion would be a footnote in history within a couple generations."

                  Religion is part of someone's identity. Usually it forms their social background since birth. Rejecting it later can often risk their sense of identity; their family and social circles; their livelihood; even their freedom and life.

                  It is a form of tribal social control for a species that is naturally hierarchical, conformist, and cooperative. An unquestionable faith is a very effective mechanism for ensuring an unchallengeable elite's right to rule.

                  Add to the mix the human inclination to want a "simple" answer to any problem - and you understand why rational thought seems often to be rejected in favour of "intuition".

                  Education can always be tuned to supporting the views of a faith's dogma. It is several hundred years since The Enlightenment - yet a candidate for UK significant local elections can still have public profile of believing the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

                  1. JulieM

                    Re: RIP Michael Collins

                    Only because we afford them excessive credence.

                    If we treated these people in the same way as we would treat "cathode ray liquid crystal deniers" who profess to believe that TV sets actually contain tiny people who act out all the shows, they would soon go extinct.

                    1. Anonymous Coward
                      Anonymous Coward

                      Re: RIP Michael Collins

                      "[...] they would soon go extinct."

                      The new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland seems likely to be Edwin Poots. Presumably that will also confer the top job as the First Minister in the Stormont parliament. He is a religious young Earth creationist who believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

  4. jake Silver badge

    Nice obit, Iain.

    Concur on "Carrying the Fire". If you haven't yet, make it the next book you read. Come to think of it, if you haven't read it in a while, read it again.

    Hopefully he had a chance to take a good look at Tranquility Base on the way out ...

    Rest in peace, Pilot.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Nice obit, Iain.


      Bought it to read during lockdown. Didn't really feel like reading during lockdown. I think for me reading is all about the pleasure of taking some time to be on my own and quietly thinking about stuff - and shall we say that life had suddenly granted me far more of an opportunity for solo contemplation than I really wanted... However, as we return towards normality (whatever that is), perhaps it might be an opportunity to pick up his book again and raise a nice glass of whisky to his memory.

      Soon be time for that movie marathon of 'The Right Stuff', 'First Man' and 'Apollo 13'...

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Nice obit, Iain.

        Understood. On the other hand, as Thomas à Kempis eloquently put it "in omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro".

        In the gripping hand, beer. Not an answer, but sometimes it helps.

        1. Fr. Ted Crilly Bronze badge

          Re: Nice obit, Iain.

          Fyunch (click)

  5. Winkypop Silver badge

    A boyhood hero

    A life very well lived.

    Columbia out

  6. A. Coatsworth

    What would be our future?

    Even if he didn't like the label of "hero", that's what he was

    1. Intractable Potsherd

      Re: What would be our future?

      True heroes never think they are heroes.

    2. Red Ted
      Thumb Up

      Alone but not lonely

      From XKCD’s What If column ( he maintains that he was alone, but not lonely.

      “There's a thing about being alone and there's a thing about being lonely, and they're two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely.”

      1. Martin

        Re: Alone but not lonely

        It's a lovely quote. Shame it's not Michael Collins but Al Worden (command module pilot, Apollo 15).

  7. Bubba Von Braun

    An inspriation to all aspiring aerospace engineers

    Indeed a life well lived. His contributions for my mind made him the standout. The Air Space Museum is a wonderful legacy, along with his quiet calm confidence. If you haven't read Carrying the Fire.. do it this weekend.

    He may not have liked the tag of "Hero" but he would not disagree he was an inspiration to many to pursue their dreams.

    I will be launching a rocket this weekend, and will make sure folks know its Carrying the Fire..


  8. Unicornpiss

    Godspeed, Michael

    That is all.

  9. a_yank_lurker


    A true hero, modest about his accomplishments - RIP Michael Collins.

  10. Chris G

    A man

    Full of humility, and the right stuff!


    1. Big_Boomer Silver badge

      Re: A man

      RIP Michael, and thanks.

  11. Annihilator

    Sad times

    The number of humans to visit another world is getting smaller and that makes me sad. I hope the pioneering work Michael and others did will continue soon. RIP.

    "While waiting, and prior to the mission, he also worked on contingency plans if something should go wrong, including how to pilot Columbia down to the Moon for a pickup if the Eagle lander's launch from the surface wasn't successful"

    I'm curious as to how that would have worked - I assume it was the option of a one-way trip?..

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: Sad times

      The command module could not possibly have descended to the moon for a pickup if the ascent engine in the Eagle failed. It could only have burned for home.

      1. Gene Cash Silver badge

        Re: Sad times

        Well, the CSM did have a small ability to chase down a malfunctioning ascent stage that barely made it to orbit for whatever reason the ascent engine didn't do a full burn.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Sad times

          A reduced burn on ascent, I would be interested to know how the profile would work. The spacecraft ascends on a curve turning its direction from vertical to horizontal to match the CSM. If the engine burned too short, or without enough power then the transition to orbit may not have completed and the spacecraft would fall back to the surface.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Sad times

            ..or be in a very elliptical orbit, with no atmosphere to cause drag no matter how close to the surface the perigee is. Just so long as the perigee doesn't coincide with any mountains! I'm sure there were contingency plans to dock so long as apogee was high enough and the command module had time to dock and still get to a return orbit.

    2. Graham Cobb Silver badge

      Re: Sad times

      I thought that he said that he prepared for dropping as low as possible if the takeoff was only partially successful. For example the engine cut out early, less power was generated than expected or directional control didn't work properly.

      Although I am sure he would have gone even lower than the planned cut off if he thought there was any chance, I am fairly certain there was no rescue option if the engine didn't fire at all. And, as he said, he would not deliberately crash - he was a professional and NASA required him to bring the command module home even if he had to be alone.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Sad times

        There was no possibility of rescue if the LEM could not leave the surface: he would have returned alone. Indeed there's a famous speech prepared by Nixon for that eventuality. Collins has spoken about the implications of having to do that, saying it would have made him a 'marked man for life'. I'm sure he would have done so however.

        If the LEM ended up in an orbit which was too low due to some partial failure of the ascent stage then there were contingencies for the CSM to meet it in a lower orbit. There are some fairly nasty limits to that, not least that once the LEM has staged they can't last very long in orbit as they've just left a lot of their power (and air supply?) on the surface. There also has to be enough fuel left in the CSM to get home otherwise there's just no purpose in it at all: if you can't meet the LEM and get home better to get one person home.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I can't speak for Collins

      I can't speak for Collins but if it had been me, 48 minutes of being alone is absolutely nothing compared with a lifetime of loneliness had I been the only one back.

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Sad times

      "The number of humans to visit another world is getting smaller and that makes me sad. I hope the pioneering work Michael and others did will continue soon. RIP."

      Absolutely this. It's sad how many of the early astronauts (of whatever nationality) have died since the moon landings and now will never be able to see a manned (personned??) landing again. Lets at least hope those still living get to see it again.

  12. druck Silver badge

    On top of the rocket

    The Lego Saturn V comes with three micro-figure astronauts, Neil and Buzz are on the moon next to the LEM, but I keep Mike on top of the escape tower never to forget him.

  13. Martin

    RIP Michael Collins

    I'm old enough to have never forgotten his name. It's always been Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins in my head.

    Here's an old song by Jethro Tull.

    For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me

  14. TheProf

    Another Go

    "Collins was offered the chance to fly on a future Apollo mission"

    I never knew that. Thanks. 52 years on and little nuggets like that keep cropping up.

  15. disgruntled yank


    Collins graduated from the United States Military Academy--its official title. Heaven knows there are other military academies in the US, but "top US military academy" just doesn't look right.

  16. Coastal cutie

    "We're made of star stuff" - but some shine so much more brightly than the rest. Godspeed and rest in peace.

  17. GBH

    thank you for this article

    I celebrate his life - as mentioned in his article

  18. Pat Att


    That was a great obituary.

  19. MrBanana Silver badge

    He took a picture of the LEM, as it left the Command Module and headed for the Moon. As well as Armstrong and Aldrin in the LEM, it includes the Earth, and the Lunar surface - it could have been framed by Kubrick. So that was a picture of all humankind, except himself - I think I would feel alone in that instance.

  20. IceC0ld

    heard a rumour

    when the crew were discussing what Neil's first words should be

    Collins is alleged to have said

    "if you had any balls, you'd shout, WTF IS THAT THING, then scream and shut off your mic" :o)

    don't know if it's true, don't care, made me laugh WAY out loud

    and another decent man, leaves this mortal coil

    RIP Mr Colloins

  21. 0laf

    God Speed sir

    I've seen him take part in many documentaries and he spoke of his time in the space program with eloquence and pride but what really came across was happiness, an almost childlike joy in what he and his collegues did. I think we've lost a real gem of humanity.

    That seems to be a rare thing in life but common with Apollo. Hardworking, professional, dedicated, supremely talented and happy.

    RIP Michael Collins.

    1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

      Re: God Speed sir

      As you say, I think it was common across Apollo (and NASA in general, at least until Challenger).

      For more of that, I recommend Kevin Fong's "13 minutes to the Moon" BBC podcasts to every geek. The second series (Apollo 13) is almost as good as the first (Apollo 11).

  22. mikeyt

    I was eleven at the time of the moon landing

    I had too many Irish Catholic friends and that name had a different resonance for me. Having read the comments he sounds like quite a man.

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