Michael Collins died on Wednesday. In 1969, as his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, he remained in Apollo 11’s command module, alone, orbiting the Moon—a role which, despite being crucially important, has resulted in him being “forgotten” by many. In the days following their historic mission the crew received countless letters of congratulations from far and wide, and in Collins’ 1974 autobiography, Carrying the Fire, he identifies this missive as being the “most impressive” of them all. It was sent to him by Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 had made the first solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic.
28 July 1969
Dear Colonel Collins,
My congratulations to you on your fascinating, extraordinary, and beautifully executed mission; and my sincere thanks for the part you took in issuing the invitation that permitted me to watch your Apollo 11 launching from the location assigned to Astronauts. (There would have been constant distractions for me in the area with VIPs, among whom I refuse to class myself—what a terrible designation!)
I managed to intercept on television the critical portion of your mission during this orbit of my own around the world. Of course after you began orbiting the moon, television attention was concentrated on the actual landing and walk-out. I watched every minute of the walk-out, and certainly it was of indescribable interest. But it seems to me you had an experience of in some ways greater profundity—the hours you spent orbiting the moon alone, and with more time for contemplation.
What a fantastic experience it must have been—alone looking down on another celestial body, like a god of space! There is a quality of aloneness that those who have not experienced it cannot know—to be alone and then to return to one’s fellow men once more. You have experienced an aloneness unknown to man before. I believe you will find that it lets you think and sense with greater clarity. Sometime in the future, I would like to listen to your own conclusions in this respect.
As for me, in some ways I felt closer to you in orbit than to your fellow astronauts I watched walking on the surface of the moon.
We are about to start the descent for Manila, and I must end this letter.
My admiration and my best wishes,
Charles A. Lindbergh
Of course I feel sure that your sense of aloneness was regularly broken into by Mission Control at Houston, but there must have been intervals in between—I hope enough of them. In my flying, years ago, I didn’t have the problem of coping with radio communications.