As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon, Michael Collins remained in the Columbia command module for 22 hours, "truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life" whenever the module passed over the moon's far side, he wrote in the 1974 memoir Carrying the Fire. Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, has died from cancer at age 90. "He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side," his family said in a statement. Collins was sometimes called the "forgotten astronaut," but "in many ways he was the keystone of the mission" and "the only one who could get all three of them home," space historian Francis French tells NPR. Collins, a former military test pilot, was selected for NASA's Astronaut Group 3 in 1963.
Decades after the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, Collins said he had carried a bag around his neck with 18 contingency plans for rescuing Armstrong and Aldrin if there were problems with the lunar module's ascent, the New York Times reports. Recalling his feelings at the time in his memoir, he wrote: "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." But being on the far side of the moon cut off from contact with Earth half the time the command module orbited the moon "was a joy because I got Mission Control to shut up for a little while," he joked in 2016. Aldrin, now the only living Apollo 11 crew member, paid tribute in a tweet, saying: "Wherever you have been or will be, you will always have the Fire to Carry us deftly to new heights and to the future." (Read more Michael Collins stories.)