When you think of Apollo 11, the first moon landing, for many two people come to mind: Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the moon, and Buzz Aldrin, the second man to land on the moon.
There were actually three crewmembers aboard Apollo 11. Michael Collins also went to the moon; however he did not have the opportunity to walk on the surface like Armstrong and Aldrin.
As such, he is not as well-known as the other two.
He also holds the distinction for, at one point, being the loneliest man in the universe.
So why is this?
The lunar module of Apollo 11, the part of the spacecraft which landed on the moon, was not the entire spacecraft. Apollo 11 consisted of two modules: the command/service module (or CSM), and the lunar module.
If the entire spacecraft were to land on the moon, there would have been too much mass for the spacecraft to later launch itself back into space and then back to Earth. The mass had to be cut.
So the lunar module would detach itself from the CSM, and would land on the moon, leaving the CSM in orbit.
A smaller part of the lunar module would then launch itself back into orbit around the moon, rendezvous with the CSM, and head back to Earth.
To keep the CSM in orbit, however, a crewmember was required.
This is where Michael Collins was during the moon landing.
As the lunar module descended to the surface, and as a giant leap for mankind was made, Collins continued to orbit the moon.
Collins at points would have been on the far side of the moon – several thousand kilometres from Armstrong and Aldrin, and nearly 400,000 kilometres away from Earth, away from every other human being in the universe, both past and present.
He would have been the most isolated human in the entire universe, the most isolated human in all of human history.
“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”
Despite being the loneliest man in the universe, he did not feel lonely. He was an integral part of the mission, and he felt very much a part of what was happening on the lunar surface.
He could not deny a feeling of solitude, however. The moment the CSM disappeared behind the far side of the moon, radio contact with Earth was cut off. No contact with any other human, and no one nearby for thousands of kilometres.