Collins was the fourth person, and third American, to perform an EVA; and is the first person to have performed more than one EVA.
Prior to becoming an astronaut, he attended the United States Military Academy, and from there he joined the United States Air Force and flew F-86s at Chambley-Bussieres Air Base, France. He was accepted to the U.S. Air Force Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in 1960. He unsuccessfully applied for the second astronaut group, but was accepted for the third group.
After retiring from NASA in 1970 he took a job in the Department of State as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. A year later he became the director of the National Air and Space Museum. He held this position until 1978 when he stepped down to become undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1980 he took the job as Vice President of LTV Aerospace. He resigned in 1985 to start his own business.
He was married to Patricia Collins until her death in April 2014. They had three children: Kate (born May 6, 1959), Ann (born October 31, 1961), and Michael (born February 23, 1963).
Collins was born in Rome, Italy, on October 31, 1930, to U.S. Army Major General James Lawton Collins, who served in the army for 38 years. For the first 17 years of his life, Collins lived in many places: Rome; Oklahoma; Governors Island, New York; Puerto Rico; San Antonio, Texas; and Alexandria, Virginia. He took his first ride in a plane in Puerto Rico aboard a Grumman Widgeon. His father often told of how his own first plane ride had been in 1911 with Frank Lahm in the Philippines. He studied for two years in the Academia del Perpetuo Socorro in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
After the United States entered World War II, the family moved to Washington, D.C. where Collins attended St. Albans School, from which he graduated in 1948. His mother wanted him to enter into the diplomatic service, but he decided to follow his father, two uncles, brother and cousin into the armed services, and received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, which also had the advantage of being free of tuition and other fees. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree, finishing 185th out of 527 cadets in 1952, the same class as fellow astronaut Ed White. His decision to join the United States Air Force for his active service was based on both the wonder of what the next 50 years might bring in aeronautics, and also to avoid accusations of nepotism had he joined the Army where, among other things, his uncle, General J. Lawton Collins, was the Chief of Staff of the United States Army. The Air Force Academy was in its initial construction phase, and would not graduate its first class for several years. In the interim, graduates of the Military Academy, Naval Academy (such as fellow astronaut Tom Stafford) and the Merchant Marine Academy were eligible for Air Force commissions.
After entering the Air Force, Collins completed flight training at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, in the T-6 Texan, then moved to San Marcos Air Force Base and James Connally Air Force Base, Texas. He was chosen for advanced day fighter training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, flying F-86 Sabres. This was followed by an assignment to the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing at George Air Force Base, California, where he learned how to deliver nuclear weapons. He transferred with the 21st when it was relocated to Chaumont-Semoutiers Air Base, France, in June 1954.
During a NATO exercise in the summer of 1956, Collins was forced to eject from an F-86 after a fire started aft of the cockpit. He was safely rescued and returned to Chaumont AB, where a wait of several hours ensued, as the base's flight surgeon had joined search parties looking for Collins.
Collins met Patricia Finnegan, his future wife, in an officers' mess. She was from Boston, Massachusetts, and was working for the Air Force service club. After getting engaged, they had to overcome a difference in religion. Collins was nominally Episcopalian, while Finnegan came from a staunchly Roman Catholic family. Collins's father had been raised a Catholic, but converted to Protestantism when he married; the rest of his family remained Catholic. After seeking permission to marry from Finnegan's father, and delaying their wedding when Collins was redeployed to West Germany during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, they married in the summer of 1957. Daughter Kate Collins, born in 1959, is a successful actress.
After Collins was reassigned to the United States, he attended an aircraft maintenance officer course at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois. He would later describe this school as "dismal" in his autobiography. Upon completing the course, he was posted to a Mobile Training Detachment (MTD) and travelled to Air Force bases, training mechanics on the servicing of new aircraft.
With the help of his time as a member of an MTD, Collins accumulated over 1,500 hours of flying, the minimum required for the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He successfully applied and reported on August 29, 1960, becoming a member of Class 60-C (which included future astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Irwin). Following months of intensive training, Collins was one of the few chosen for a position in fighter operations.
Collins used to smoke heavily, but decided to quit in 1962 after suffering a particularly bad hangover. The next day, he spent what he described as the worst four hours of his life in the right-hand seat of a bomber flicking switches while going through the initial stages of nicotine withdrawal.
The turning point for Collins in his decision to become an astronaut was the Mercury Atlas 6 flight of John Glenn on February 20, 1962, and the thought of being able to circle the Earth in 90 minutes. He immediately applied for the second group of astronauts that year. To raise their numbers, the Air Force sent their best applicants to a "charm school". Medical and psychiatric examinations at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas and interviews at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston followed. In mid-September he found that he had not been accepted, something that was a blow even though he did not really expect to be accepted. Collins still rates the second group of nine as the best group of astronauts ever selected by NASA.
That same year the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School became the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, as the Air Force tried to enter into the research of space. Collins applied for a new course offered into the basics of spaceflight (other students included Charles Bassett, Edward Givens and Joe Engle). Along with classwork they also flew up to about 90,000 feet in F-104 Starfighters. As they passed through the top of their huge arc, they would experience a brief period of weightlessness. Finishing this course he returned to fighter ops in May 1963.
At the start of June of that year, NASA once again called for astronaut applications. Collins went through the same process as with his first applications, though he did not take the psychiatric evaluation. He was at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas on October 14 when Deke Slayton called and asked if he was still interested in becoming an astronaut. Charlie Bassett was also accepted in the same group.
He has logged approximately 5,000 hours flying time.
For the third group of astronauts, training began with a 240-hour course of the basics of spaceflight. Fifty-eight hours of this was devoted to geology, something that Collins did not readily understand and in which he never became very interested. At the end, Alan Shepard, who was head of the astronaut office, asked the fourteen to rank their fellow astronauts in the order they would want to fly with them in space. Collins picked David Scott in the number one position.
After this basic training, the third group were assigned specializations, with Collins receiving his first choice of pressure suits and EVA (spacewalk). His job was to monitor the development and act as something of a go-between for the Astronaut Office and the contractors. As such he was annoyed when during the secretive planning of Ed White's EVA on Gemini 4, he was not involved.
In late June 1965, Collins received his first crew assignment, the backup pilot for Gemini 7. He was the first of the 14 to receive a crew assignment, though would not be the first to fly; that honor went to David Scott on Gemini 8. Collins never rated himself with the super athletes of the NASA Astronaut Corps, like his fellow backup crew member Ed White, but he still tried to keep in shape, especially in the run up to Gemini 7, when he could have been called upon to spend 14 days in space.
After the successful completion of Gemini 7, Collins was assigned to the prime crew of Gemini 10 with John Young, with White moving onto Apollo program. Their three-day mission called for them to rendezvous with two different Agena Target Vehicles, undertake two EVAs, and perform 15 different experiments. The training went smoothly, as the crew learned the intricacies of orbital rendezvous, controlling the Agena and, for Collins, EVA. For what was to be the fourth ever EVA, underwater training was not undertaken, mostly because Collins just did not have the time. To train to use the nitrogen gun he would use for propulsion, a super smooth metal surface about the size of a boxing ring was set up. He would stand on a circular pad that used gas jets to raise itself off the surface. Using the nitrogen gun he would practise propelling himself across the "slippery table". For the three day flight, Collins received $24.00 in travel reimbursement.
For his first EVA Collins did not leave the Gemini capsule, but stood up through the hatch with a device that resembled a sextant. In his biography he said he felt at that moment like a Roman god riding the skies in his chariot.
Shortly after Gemini 10, Collins was assigned to the backup crew for the second manned Apollo flight, with Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Thomas Stafford and Collins as Lunar Module Pilot (LMP). Along with learning the new Apollo Command/Service Module (CSM) and the Apollo Lunar Module (LM), Collins received helicopter training, as these were thought to be the best way to simulate the landing approach of the LM. After the completion of Project Gemini, it was decided to cancel the Apollo 2 flight, since it would just repeat the Apollo 1 flight. In the process of crews being reassigned, Collins was moved to the CMP position on the Apollo 8 prime crew, since his new crew was Borman, Collins and William Anders. Deke Slayton had decided that the CMP should have some spaceflight experience, something that Anders did not have. Three years later, this change would be the reason Collins orbited the Moon while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on its surface.
Staff meetings were always held on Fridays in the Astronaut Office and it was here that Collins found himself on January 27, 1967. Don Gregory was running the meeting in the absence of Alan Shepard and so it was he who answered the red phone to be informed that there was a fire in the Apollo 1 CM. When the enormity of the situation was ascertained, it fell on Collins to go the Chaffee household to tell Martha Chaffee that her husband was dead. The Astronaut Office had learned to be proactive in informing astronauts' families of a death quickly, because of the death of Theodore Freeman in an aircraft crash, when a newspaper reporter was the first to his house.
Following the delays to training as Frank Borman took part in the fire investigation, the crew of what would become Apollo 8 started back. It would be the first manned flight of the Saturn V on its third launch. They would use the S-IVB third stage to boost them into a highly elliptical Earth orbit with a high point of 4,000 miles.
During this time Collins and David Scott were sent by NASA to the Paris Air Show in May 1967. There they met cosmonauts Pavel Belyayev and Konstantin Feoktistov, with whom they drank vodka on the Soviet's Tupolev Tu-134. Collins found it interesting that some cosmonauts were doing helicopter training like their American counterparts, and Belyayev said that he hoped to make a circum-lunar flight soon. The astronauts' wives had accompanied them on the trip, and Collins and his wife Pat were somewhat forced by NASA and their friends to travel to Metz where they had been married ten years before. There, they found a third wedding ceremony had been arranged for them (ten years previously they had already had civil and religious ceremonies).
During 1968, Collins noticed that his legs were not working as they should, first during handball games, then as he walked down stairs, his knee would almost give way. His left leg also had unusual sensations when in hot and cold water. Reluctantly he sought medical advice and the diagnosis was a cervical disc herniation, requiring two vertebrae to be fused together. The surgery was performed at Wilford Hall Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and he spent three months in a neck brace. It also removed Collins from the crew of Apollo 9 and moved Jim Lovell up to the prime crew. When the Apollo 8 mission was changed from a CSM/LM in Earth orbit, to a CSM-only flight around the Moon, both prime and backup crews for the Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 swapped places.
Having trained for the flight, Collins was made a capsule communicator (CAPCOM), an astronaut stationed at Mission Control responsible for communicating directly with the crew during a mission. As part of the Green Team, he covered the launch phase up to translunar injection, the rocket burn that sent Apollo 8 to the Moon. The successful completion of the first manned circum-lunar flight was followed by the announcement of the Apollo 11 crew of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. At that time in January 1969, it was not certain this would be the lunar landing crew, depending on the success of Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 testing the Lunar Module.
As CMP, Collins's training was completely different from that for the LM and lunar EVA and was sometimes done without Armstrong or Aldrin being present. Along with simulators, there were size measurements for pressure suits, centrifuge training to simulate the 10 g reentry, and practicing docking with a huge rig at NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, just to name a few. Since he would be the active participant in the rendezvous with the LM, Collins compiled a book of 18 different rendezvous schemes for different scenarios including where the LM did not land, or launched too early or too late. This book ran for 117 pages.
The famous mission patch of Apollo 11 was the creation of Collins. Jim Lovell, the backup commander, mentioned the idea of eagles, a symbol of the United States. Collins liked the idea and found a painting by artist Walter Weber in a National Geographic book, Water, Prey, and Game Birds of North America, traced it and added the lunar surface below and Earth in the background. The idea of an olive branch, a symbol of peace, came from a computer expert at the simulators. The call sign Columbia for the CSM came from Julian Scheer, the NASA Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs. He mentioned the idea to Collins in a conversation and Collins could not think of anything better. It was during the training for Apollo 11 that Collins told Deke Slayton that he did not want to fly again. Slayton offered to get him back into the crew sequence after the flight, and according to Collins, this would probably have been as backup commander of Apollo 14 followed by commander of Apollo 17.
During his day of solo flying around the Moon, Collins never felt lonely. Although it has been said that "not since Adam has any human known such solitude", Collins felt very much a part of the mission. In his autobiography he wrote that "this venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two". During the 48 minutes of each orbit that he was out of radio contact with Earth, the feeling he reported was not loneliness, but rather "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation".
After spending so much time with the CSM, Collins felt compelled to leave his mark on it, so during the second night following their return from the Moon, he went to the lower equipment bay of the CM and wrote:
"Spacecraft 107 — alias Apollo 11 — alias Columbia
. The best ship to come down the line. God Bless Her. Michael Collins, CMP"
In a July 2009 interview with The Guardian, Collins revealed that he was very worried about Armstrong and Aldrin's safety. He was also concerned that, in the event of their deaths on the Moon, he would be forced to return to Earth alone and, as the mission's sole survivor, be regarded as "a marked man for life".
After being released from a 18-day quarantine, the crew embarked on a 45-day "Giant Leap" tour across the United States and around the world. Prior to this trip NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine had told Collins that Secretary of State William P. Rogers was interested in appointing Collins to the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. After the crew returned to the U.S. in November, Collins sat down with Rogers and accepted the position on the urgings of President Richard Nixon.
Collins retired from NASA in 1970. In 1971, Collins was appointed director of the National Air and Space Museum. He held this position until 1978, when he stepped down to become undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Collins completed the Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Program in 1974, and in 1980 he became Vice President of LTV Aerospace in Arlington, Virginia. He resigned in 1985 to start his own consulting firm, Michael Collins Associates.
He retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserves with the rank of Major General.
He wrote an autobiography in 1974 entitled Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys. It is "generally regarded as the best account of what it is like to be an astronaut." He has also written Liftoff: The Story of America's Adventure in Space (1988), a history of the American space program, Mission to Mars (1990), a non-fiction book on human spaceflight to Mars, and Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places (1976), revised and re-released as Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut's Story (1994), a children's book on his experiences. Along with his writing, he has painted watercolors mostly relating to his Florida Everglades home, or aircraft that he flew; they are rarely space-related. Until recently he did not sign his paintings to avoid them increasing in price just because they had his autograph on them. Collins was a long-time trustee of the National Geographic Society and presently serves as Trustee Emeritus. He is also a fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 2008 he was inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Honor. Collins is also an inductee of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.
He has been awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Command Pilot Astronaut Wings, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal. Together with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, he received the Collier Trophy in 1969 and the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society in 1970. The International Astronomical Union honored him by naming an asteroid after him, 6471 Collins. Collins and his Apollo 11 crewmates were the 1999 recipients of the Langley Gold Medal from the Smithsonian Institution. Also, like the other two Apollo 11 crew members, he has a lunar crater named after him. He also received the Harmon Trophy in 1969.
Collins lived with his wife, Pat, in Marco Island, Florida and Avon, North Carolina until her death in April 2014. Carrying the Fire is dedicated to her.
Collins is one of the astronauts featured in the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. He also contributed to the book of the same name. In 1989, some of his personal papers were transferred to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He had a small part as "Old Man" in the 2009 movie, Youth in Revolt.
Collins is one of 82 astronauts who supports the Asteroid Day campaign which was co-founded by Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart and astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Brian May.English rock group Jethro Tull has a song "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me", which appears on the Benefit album from 1970. The song compares the feelings of misfitting from vocalist Ian Anderson (and friend Jeffrey Hammond) with the astronaut's own, as he is left behind by the ones who had the privilege of walking on the surface of the Moon.
In the 1996 TV movie Apollo 11, Collins was played by Jim Metzler. In the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, he was played by Cary Elwes. In the 2009 TV movie Moon Shot, he was played by Andrew Lincoln.
The 2002 mockumentary Opération Lune portrays the reason for Collins' retirement from public life as his deep disappointment at not having set foot on the Moon, and his current whereabouts as unknown.
American rock group The Byrds has a song "Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins", a ballad of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, on the album Ballad of Easy Rider.
In Chapter 6 of Naoki Urasawa's manga series 20th Century Boys, the characters express sympathy that Collins made it all the way to the moon without ever setting foot on the lunar surface.
In 2013, indie pop group The Boy Least Likely To released the song "Michael Collins" on the album The Great Perhaps. The song uses Collins' feeling that he was blessed to have the type of solitude of being truly separated from all other human contact in contrast with modern society's lack of perspective.
He was referenced by a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic strip produced in 2014.
American folk artist John Craigie recorded a song titled "Michael Collins" for his 2017 album No Rain, No Rose. The song embraces his role as an integral part of the Apollo 11 mission with the chorus, "Sometimes you take the fame, sometimes you sit back stage, but if it weren't for me them boys would still be there."