Michael Collins Liked His Alone Time

The Apollo 11 astronaut is famous for orbiting the moon in solitude.

A collage of Michael Collins and the moon
Joan Wong; NASA / Getty
Editor’s Note: Michael Collins’ family announced on April 28, 2021, that he had died from cancer. Marina Koren spoke to him in 2019 about his experience circling the moon as part of a series reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission, 50 years later. We have updated the headline to this story.

It’s been five decades since he went to the moon, and Michael Collins knows exactly what his next adventure will be.

“I’m going to find a nice big rock, and I’m going to hide under it,” Collins told me recently.

As the big anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission approached, Collins was bombarded with requests for interviews, appearances, and other ceremonial events. Similar solicitations came at the last significant milestone, and the one before that, and the one before that. Collins is used to the attention; press conferences are part of an astronaut’s job description. But that doesn’t mean he enjoys it. And this anniversary might be the most intense yet.

Collins never set foot on the moon. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin maneuvered the lunar module to the surface, Collins remained in orbit, manning the command module. He didn’t witness the landing; his spacecraft sped on after he dropped off the two other astronauts, and the view from that height is nothing but craters. He did hear Armstrong’s voice crackle over the radio, telling Mission Control he and Aldrin made it.

Collins circled the moon, completely alone, for more than a day. He listened as his fellow astronauts walked around the jagged terrain in their puffy white suits, unpacked science instruments, and scooped rocks into boxes. The voices vanished every couple of hours, as Collins’s command module slipped behind the moon, where neither the astronauts nor Mission Control could reach him. The views were stunning all around. But for Collins, the finest sight was the lunar module returning, a small dot moving in the distance, a speck of black against the gleaming gray. Soon Neil and Buzz would be back inside. They could all go home.

Collins is 88 now. He never flew to space again after Apollo 11, instead moving on to jobs with shorter commutes. He worked at the State Department, and then served as the director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Today, he’s retired and lives in Florida. When he’s not onstage or on the phone being asked to relive one of the most important moments in human history, he likes to read, mostly books and newspapers, at his home.

“I can’t say I wake up every morning thinking, Oh, Apollo 11, blah blah,” Collins says. “I may, in normal times, go a month or two without thinking about it. But when I do, it comes back with a great deal of clarity, more than I would have guessed.”

While the memory of the mission remains vivid in his mind, one piece from that time escapes him: how he found out he’d be on it.

“I cannot for the life of me remember how I acquired this information, from Neil or Deke [Slayton, the director of flight-crew operations] most likely,” Collins wrote in his autobiography, published in 1974, five years after the moon landing. “But I feel like an ass checking the point. ‘Er … say, Neil, did you ever tell me I was supposed to be on your crew, you remember that one that went to the moon?’”

Collins joined NASA as an astronaut in 1963, just five years after the agency was established. He was a young pilot, with three children under the age of 5. He had been a military brat, born in Rome, where his father, a U.S. Army officer, was stationed. After graduating from West Point, he picked the Air Force instead of the Army, where he would have had to worry about accusations of nepotism; Collins’s father, brother, two uncles, and cousin all served. He was at Edwards Air Force Base in California, racking up flying hours, when he heard NASA was looking for a fresh batch of astronauts. “I certainly had had no childhood dream of flying to the moon or anywhere else, but the idea was damned appealing,” Collins wrote. He decided to apply after John Glenn orbited Earth in 1962, the first American to do it, writing: “Imagine being able to circle the globe once each 90 minutes, high above all the clouds and turbulence!”

NASA produced a breathtaking number of accomplishments in the seven years after Glenn’s flight. The agency tested complex spacecraft maneuvers in orbit around Earth. It flew astronauts around the moon and back. One crew even descended toward the surface in a lander, but it returned to the command module before touching down. The agency lost three astronauts, killed in a fire during a launch rehearsal on the ground, but engineers pressed on to meet John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. By the summer of 1969, the only thing left to do was stick the landing.

Collins spent months training for the delicate particulars of the Apollo 11 mission. He commuted between NASA centers in Houston and Cape Canaveral on a T-38, a slinky two-seater jet, usually alone. By launch day, Collins had accumulated 400 hours in a command-module simulator, running emergency scenarios and rehearsing every step of the journey, including the fiery reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. “The hazards were more mental than physical, and I was called upon to solve a series of mysteries involving obscure equipment failures,” Collins recalled in his book. “Some I won, but even more frequently I lost, and more than once I plummeted into the sea with parachutes still unfurled, destroying myself, along with Neil and Buzz (assuming I hadn’t already left them for all time on the lunar surface).”

Collins was under a different kind of pressure than the other astronauts: He was their only ride home. The crew would arrive at the moon together. Armstrong and Aldrin would travel to and from the surface in a lander, and Collins, in the command module, would release and recapture them. If something went wrong in these delicate maneuvers, the moonwalkers would be stranded. Collins needed to learn how to fly the command module back to Earth because there was a terrible chance he’d be the only one coming back.

Collins says he didn’t have much time to think about that during the real thing, when Armstrong and Aldrin had departed and he was alone in the command module. There were tests to run, and systems to check. Of course it would have been better to be on the ground, he says. But in case any future moon tourists are wondering, the view from orbit was satisfying enough. On the surface, “you’re in the middle of a crater. So you look to the north, and you see a crater rim, and you look to the south, and you see a crater rim,” Collins told me. “If you’re in orbit around the moon, you get a panoramic view.”

For the rest of us, the moon will always be a flat, two-dimensional coin of light in the darkness. Collins and the other Apollo astronauts experienced it as it truly is, a ball suspended in nothingness, curved by light and shadow. And then there’s the far side, eternally hidden from view. In his book, Collins’s description of the other side of the moon, shrouded in darkness, is lovely and infuriating at the same time because, hard as we try, we can’t fathom the view: “Outside my window I can see stars—and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void; the moon’s presence is defined solely by the absence of stars.”

Michael Collins in 2019 (Eric Baradat / AFP / Getty Images)

This is the part of the mission, the hours of isolation, that journalists always ask Collins about. What was it like to be so alone? To be on one side of the moon while the rest of humankind breathed on another? His answer is always the same: He felt the solitude deeply, but he was just fine. “I was not lonely, despite some news headlines that said”—and here, he puts on the voice of a sorrowful TV announcer—“Collins is the loneliest man that has ever endured a lonely orbit, in a lonely place … God, wasn’t he lonely!”

There was something pleasant about being alone after a few days crammed in with two other people. Before the launch, Armstrong and Aldrin got into a tense discussion one night in their crew quarters at Cape Canaveral. Armstrong had crashed the Eagle lander in a simulation earlier in the day, killing himself and Aldrin. The real maneuver was less than a month away. As the men argued, Collins gave thanks for the sole companion he would have in his module: the computer.

“Politely I excused myself and gratefully crept off to bed, not wishing to intrude in an interview clash of technique or personality,” he wrote in his book. “Thank god, in the CM there were only me and Colossus IIA, and if that son of a bitch mouthed off, I would turn off its power supply.”

After the Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth, they no longer belonged only to themselves. They were American heroes, and as such, they had yet another job to do. With the possible exception of Aldrin, the liveliest of the group, they weren’t thrilled about it.

The crew embarked on a worldwide tour, starting with a ticker-tape parade in New York City that brought out 4 million people for whom these men were no longer human, but heroes. They traveled to 28 cities in 25 countries in 38 days, shaking hands with well-wishers—including the queen of England—until their fingers nearly fell off. “The first few years right after the flight, Dad couldn’t go anywhere without being identified,” Kate Collins, who was 10 years old when her father went to the moon, told me.

The script changed little over the years. From Armstrong, who died in 2012, everyone wanted to know what it meant to be the first man on the moon. From Aldrin, who is 89 now, they wanted to know what it felt like to be second, a question that stung. And from Collins, they wanted to know what it was like to be so alone.

Nonstop media interviews can be exhausting, and 50 years of practice doesn’t make the attention any more bearable. “It’s a lot easier to not talk to a bunch of very intelligent, very determined journalists who are going to beat me up one side and down the other and pry into my inner workings,” Collins says now.

The irritation is warranted. Reporters are a nosy and incessant bunch, especially when our sources are astronauts. As soon as the Apollo 11 astronauts splashed down in their capsule in the Pacific Ocean, they became national treasures.* Space travelers seem to possess some kind of cosmic truth that no one else can access. Bound by Earth’s gravity, we swarm them, projecting our patchy sense of the universe on their experiences, shaping their legacies for them.

Collins wishes people would ask him something else about his trip to the moon, something that he’s heard is one of the most common questions for astronauts these days. “I’ve never had it before—I’m not sure why—but how do you go potty in space?” Collins says. “I’ve been waiting for it, because the answer is: carefully.”

It is understandable that no one has inquired; surely you can’t bother someone who went to the moon with such a silly question. Apollo 11 isn’t remembered for its bathroom breaks. But Collins might be glad you asked.

* This article previously misstated the location of the Apollo 11 splashdown. It was the Pacific Ocean, not the Atlantic.