NASA astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted the historic mission of Apollo 11 spacecraft Columbia in 1969, passed away on Wednesday due to cancer. He was 90.
During the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, Collins remained in lunar orbit while fellow crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the moon's surface in the lunar module.
When Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon's surface on July 20, Collins was orbiting 65 miles above them and was momentarily almost forgotten as the world's attention focused on his two crewmates below.
"Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins. 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. He also distinguished himself in the Gemini Program and as an Air Force pilot," 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," Jurczyk said.
Born on October 31, 1930 in Rome, Italy, Collins graduated from Saint Albans School in Washington, DC, and later from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1952. He was a fighter pilot and from 1959 to 1963 served as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Collins was also a member of the third group of NASA astronauts, selected in October 1963. His first flight was as pilot of Gemini 10, a three-day mission launched July 18, 1966.
Collins became the third US spacewalker when he retrieved a micrometeorite detection device from the rocket of an Agena target-docking vehicle .Including the Apollo 11 mission, Collins logged 266 hours in space.
He also wrote several books: "Carrying the Fire" in 1974, "Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places" in 1976, "Liftoff: The Story of America's Adventure in Space" in 1988 and "Mission to Mars" in 1990.
"We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today, after a valiant battle with cancer. He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side. 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. We will honor his wish for us to celebrate, not mourn, that life," read a statement from the Collins family.