“It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand. Exploration is not a choice, really; it’s an imperative.”

— Michael Collins

When NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter lifted off from the dusty surface of Mars and flew for a tick longer than 39 seconds, controlled from a joystick here on Earth more than 186 million miles away, it was only the latest in a series of staggering achievements in space over the last six decades.

Michael Collins was at the center of many of them.

Collins, who passed away Wednesday at 90, is perhaps best known for piloting Apollo 11’s command module, remaining in orbit as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. Armstrong and the outspoken Aldrin got most of the attention in the ensuing years, leaving Collins as a trivia question of sorts ("Who was the third man on the Apollo 11 mission?”).

That would be selling Collins short. He was a national hero.

“Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said. “As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module — some called him ‘the loneliest man in history’ — while his colleagues walked on the moon for the first time, he helped our nation achieve a defining milestone.”

Collins, after leaving the Air Force, first distinguished himself as an astronaut in the Gemini Program, going to space in 1966 and becoming the third American to perform a spacewalk.

Three years later, the pilot of Apollo 11’s command module, he had the most important job of the country’s years-long, multimillion-dollar mission — not only making sure Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, but that they returned safely.

“My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter,” he wrote in his engaging 1974 memoir, “Carrying the Fire.” Had he been the only astronaut to return, he said, he would be “a marked man for life.”

The history-making trio, of course, splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, after traveling more than 950,000 miles over eight days. 

Collins left NASA the next year. Had he decided to retire at that time, Apollo 11 would have been the capstone to an incredible career of sacrifice and public service. But Collins spent the better part of the next few decades continuing to serve as a voice for continued exploration of the outer reaches of the solar system.

After a two-year stint as assistant secretary of state, Collins was called upon to serve as an early director of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. Today — at least in precoronavirus years — the museum sees millions of visitors every year.

When Collins took over as director in 1971, plans for a museum had been approved but no funding had been lined up. “We had nothing but a hole in the ground,” Collins said, promising to have the museum opened by July 4, 1976 — the country’s bicentennial. He beat the deadline by four days.

Collins went on to write several books about space exploration and became a leading proponent of a manned mission to Mars, which he admitted would be “very, very perilous.” Yet the challenges, he said, were not insurmountable, given human ingenuity. 

“I’m not able to put anything tangible on our ability to go to far-off places,” he said in 2019. I think you have to reach out for the intangibles. I just think humankind has an innate desire to be outward bound, to continue traveling.”

Today, we still see that desire — and Collins’ influence — in NASA’s breathtaking work on Mars, and the continued flights of SpaceX. As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its second year, they give us hope for a better future. It’s something Collins understood implicitly and could relate to the average person better than any of his fellow astronauts.

“We cannot launch our planetary probes from a springboard of poverty, discrimination, or unrest; but neither can we wait until each and every terrestrial problem has been solved,” Collins told a joint session of Congress on Sept. 16, 1969, weeks after returning to Earth. “Man has always gone where he has been able to go. It’s that simple. He will continue pushing back his frontier, no matter how far it may carry him from his homeland.”

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