Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins dies at 90

Collins flew Apollo 11's command module around the Moon as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin visited the surface.

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Michael Collins, the astronaut who flew Apollo 11's command module around the Moon as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first humans to set foot on the lunar surface in 1969, has died at the age of 90. Collins' family said in a statement he passed away after a battle with cancer.

"He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side," the statement read. "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."

Aldrin is the last surviving astronaut from the Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon, died in 2012.

Collins has been referred to as the loneliest man in history. Radio transmissions to mission control were often blocked as he circled the Moon, cutting him off entirely from every other human. While he had contingency plans in case anything went wrong with the lunar lander, Aldrin and Armstrong safely returned to the command module. Collins took one of the most famous photos in history of the lunar lander with the Moon and Earth in the background.

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. aboard, is photographed from the Command and Service Modules in lunar orbit in this July, 1969 file handout photo. Astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained with the Command/Service Module in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin explored the Moon. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission is July 16 (launch) and July 20 (landing on the moon). Michael Collins/NASA/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
NASA NASA / Reuters

Collins retired from NASA the year after the mission. He worked in the State Department for a spell before taking over as director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Although Collins didn't walk on the Moon, his name and signature remain there on a plaque.

"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. “NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential. 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.”