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Alone at the Moon: What Was Michael Collins Thinking During the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing?

Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who piloted the command and service module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, was dubbed the "loneliest person in the world" upon returning to Earth.

But Collins has since dismissed this description of his time in the spacecraft and recently revealed one of his major preoccupations during his solo orbits: how a colony of white mice was faring back on Earth. 

Collins, who was sometimes overshadowed by his colleagues like George Harrison of the Beatles, was alone in the spacecraft, orbiting the moon, while his colleagues landed and explored on the surface down below. He was also entirely out of communication with NASA Mission Control for more than 45 minutes at a time as he orbited around the far side of the moon.

Related: Apollo 11 at 50: A Complete Guide to the Historic Moon Landing 

But despite the total silence, Collins wasn't lonely as he looked down at the lunar surface and thought of his colleagues. 

"I was not lonely," Collins said at an Explorer's Club event in New York City earlier this year, "I had a happy little home in the command module. Behind the moon it was very peaceful — no one in Mission Control is yakkin' at me and wanting me to do this, that, and the other. So I was very happy, it was a happy home."

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin laughing while in quarantine after the Apollo 11 mission.  (Image credit: NASA)

Collins told his orbiting-the-moon story on stage at the event, alongside Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Rusty Schweickart, Charlie Duke, Walt Cunningham and Al Worden, who all discussed the Apollo program, along with private spaceflight participant Richard Garriott. 

Collins did reveal, however, that his solo orbit around the moon wasn't all peace and tranquility. While he reviewed possible rendezvous maneuvers with the lunar module on the surface of the moon, Collins worried about his friends — a bunch of tiny, white mice. 

A shot of Michael Collins during NASA's Gemini X mission.  (Image credit: NASA)

"I was amazed, because the emphasis in the press was 'wasn't I the loneliest person in the whole lonely world in the whole lonely orbit around some lonely thing' and, you know, what I was worried about was the white mice," Collins said.

Upon returning from the moon, the Apollo 11 astronauts spent a couple of weeks in quarantine alongside a colony of white mice. The idea was that if the mice fell ill or started exhibiting strange behaviors, the team monitoring the crewmembers would know that perhaps they had brought "moon germs" back with them. 

"If one of those poor little things didn't do too well, we were in deep trouble, we might've brought back some pathogen. So every time I was asked, 'weren't you the most lonely one?' I think, 'Oh God, those poor little white mice, I hope they're doing alright,'" Collins said.

So, it turns out that the post-landing media coverage had Michael Collins all wrong. He wasn't lonely, he was taking a break from Mission Control and daydreaming about a colony of mice. 

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music, singing, playing guitar and performing with her band Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.