Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, who (along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) flew into history with mankind's first Moon landing in July 1969, died today of cancer at age 90.
I had the incredible honor of knowing all three Apollo 11 astronauts and also attending with them the private ceremony on the 30th anniversary of their Moon landing. Here is a brief excerpt from my newest book, "Shaking Hands with History: My Encounters with the Famous, the Infamous, and the Once-Famous but Now Forgotten" that tells of my meeting Collins for the first time. It was at the funeral service for Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad at Arlington National Cemetery, which coincidentally was the day before Apollo 11's 30th Moon landing anniversary. After the chapel and graveside service, we were at a private reception for guests following the burial:
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The Conrad family hosted a reception for invited guests at nearby Spates Hall, located a few hundred feet from the chapel. All three of the Apollo 11 crew members attended: Armstrong and Collins stood alone in quiet, private conversation, while Aldrin and his wife moved through the buffet line.
It was there that I met Collins. "Congressman Rogan, I know you by reputation quite well," he said as he walked over and shook my hand, leaving me flattered that he knew me. I told him I could prove I was a longtime admirer: on my first trip to Washington as a teenager I wandered back and forth throughout the public floors of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. "I knew you were the museum director at the time," I explained, "so I was hoping to get a glimpse of you in person!"
Collins laughed. "You should have just knocked on my office door!" Then, with a sigh, he added, "That was a long time ago. Now I spend most of my time down in Florida where I live."
As the reception wound down, it was time for me to return to the Capitol. I was leaving when Aldrin grabbed my elbow. "See you at the breakfast tomorrow morning?" he asked. I told him that I would not miss that event for anything. Tomorrow's "breakfast" was a private NASA reception at the Air and Space Museum commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Originally only crew members Aldrin and Collins planned to attend. Now, with Armstrong in town for the funeral and staying overnight, all three Apollo 11 members would reunite on the historic anniversary. And, thanks to NASA's congressional liaison office, I had one of the hottest breakfast tickets in town.
For a space and history buff, it promised to be the photo op of a lifetime.