Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins dies at 90

Michael Collins, the astronaut who piloted the Apollo 11 command module around the moon in 1969, has died, officials announced Wednesday. He was 90.

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In a statement released by NASA, family members said Collins died following a battle with cancer.

“He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side,” the statement said. “Mike always faced the challenges 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 stayed in lunar orbit in 1969, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin visited the moon’s surface, becoming the first men to step foot on a planet other than Earth. The three-man crew effectively ended the space race between the United States and Russia and fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s.

“Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins,” NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a statement. “NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential.”

Collins was alone for nearly 28 hours before Armstrong and Aldrin finished their tasks on the moon’s surface and lifted off in the lunar lander in 1969. Though he was frequently asked if he regretted not landing on the moon, that was never an option for Collins -- at least not on Apollo 11. Collins’ specialty was as a command module pilot, a job he compared to being the base-camp operator on a mountain climbing expedition. As a result, he wasn’t considered to take part in the July 20, 1969, landing.

“I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have,” he wrote in his 1974 autobiography, “Carrying the Fire.” “This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.”

Jurczyk remembered Collins as a “tireless promoter of space.”

“There is no doubt he inspired a new generation of scientists, engineers, test pilots, and astronauts,” he 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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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