Born: October 31, 1930;

Died: April 28, 2021.

MICHAEL COLLINS became fed up with answering the question about once having been the loneliest man in the universe as he circled the Moon in 1969. Eventually, he cautioned interviewers that he would throw them out of the room if the question was put to him.

What that suggests is the Apollo 11 astronaut had a rocket fuse that could go off at any time. But that wasn’t the case at all. Collins, it transpires, was simply irritated by the repetition.

“I wasn’t lonely while I waited for the docking procedure”, he once explained. “I was alone. But that’s not the same thing. I was happy to be in the spaceship, happy to do my job.”

Collins’s crucial job once they had reached the Moon was to assist Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin, both of whom set foot on the lunar surface, back into the command module, Columbia – a task he readily accepted and performed brilliantly.

He was a man of considerable humility. He could indeed have gone back to the Moon and walked upon the surface in a later mission, but he did not wish to put his family through the worry of his involvement; he would have been away from home, training, for months on end.

Although he was hailed as a hero on splashdown into the Pacific, his mantra in conversation was that he was simply a part of the “daisy chain” of people who had made the epic Moon landing possible, just one of the 400,000 involved in the $25 billion project.

What was also evident was that he had exactly the right temperament to be the man who remained in the spacecraft. He was calm and collected, and certainly loved a laugh.

Indeed, when he applied to become an astronaut, he failed on the first attempt. Part of the test featured the famous Rorschach ink-blots psychiatric exam. “I leafed through a whole series of them, and then the last one was a blank sheet of paper, pure white, eight by 10,” he once recalled. “I was asked what I could see. And I said, ‘Well, of course, that’s 11 polar bears fornicating in a snow bank.’ And I could see the examiner’s eyes kind of tighten. He didn’t think that was funny.”

But how did a young joker with an irreverent sense of humour become an astronaut – and one of the most famous men on the planet?

Collins was born in Rome. His father, James Lawton Collins, was stationed in Italy with the army. His father and brother were US Army generals, and his uncle was the Army’s chief of staff. It was almost a given he would attend West Point Academy and go into the Army. But on graduating he “sneaked off’ to the air force instead.

In 1956, during a Nato exercise, he was forced to eject from an F-86

after a fire started in the cockpit. Somewhat less dramatically,

Collins met his future wife, Patricia Finnegan, a social worker from Boston, in an officers’ mess.

By 1961, he was a student at the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, alongside his “gung-ho” fellow pilots. That year, President John F Kennedy said the United States would put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade and return him safely to Earth.

As a child, Collins had dreamt of flying. Now he dreamt of flying off into space. He became an astronaut in the Gemini programme, and the third American to perform a space walk.

But then came the shot at the Moon itself. Was he afraid? Did his wife fear he would not come back? Collins conceded: “We’d nibble all around the edges of the danger involved.”

The take-off itself was terrifying. “The shockwave from the rocket power hits you”, he said. “Your whole body is shaking. This gives you an entirely different concept of what power really means. Then you’re suspended in the cockpit. From then on, it’s a quieter, more rational, silent ride all the way to the Moon.”

Collins’ responsibility was awesome. He was terrified for a time, his greatest fear being that Armstrong and Aldrin would become trapped upon the Moon after they had walked upon its surface, and that he would have to leave for Earth without them. “As the mission’s sole survivor, I would be regarded as a marked man for life,” was how he once put it.

While Aldrin and Armstrong separated from Columbia in the lunar module, the Eagle, Collins kept circling the Moon. There was time to relax before docking. “I had hot coffee. I had music I could play if I wanted to” (his favourite was Jonathan King’s hit, Everyone’s Gone To The Moon). He added, with a grin: “I had people to talk to on the radio, sometimes too many people talking too much on the radio.”

Once they were safely back on Earth, the trio became superheroes. They travelled across the globe promoting space travel, and America itself.

Afterwards, Collins told Nasa he did not wish to travel into space again, though he did work in a series of government positions, including becoming the director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Along with his Apollo 11 crewmates, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011. And, a diehard fisherman, he loved his life in Florida.

Collins, who has died from cancer aged 90, was certainly proud of his achievements, and sanguine about the description, “The Third Man”.

“I certainly thought I did not have the best seat of the three,” he said of Aldrin and Armstrong. “But I can say in all honesty, I was thrilled with the seat I did have.”

His wife, Patricia, died in 2014 and their son, Michael, in 1993. He is survived by two daughters, Kate and Ann. Buzz Aldrin wrote on social media: “Dear Mike, Wherever you have been or will be, you will always have the fire to carry us deftly to new heights and to the future. We will miss you. May you rest in peace.”