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1998 Distinguished Graduate Award

MG Michael Collins '52

As a distinguished Air Force officer and intrepid astronaut; as a bold and courageous pioneer who spearheaded the American conquest of space; as Command Module pilot on mankind’s historic first landing on the moon; as an Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs who initiated progressive and dynamic educational programs for the nation’s youth; and as the architect whose vision foresight and innovative leadership created the National Air and Space Museum, Michael Collins has served his country with distinction and integrity in a wide variety of endeavors throughout a career spanning nearly five decades.
Born in Rome, Italy, in 1930, Michael Collins graduated from the Military Academy in 1952 and was commissioned in the Air Force. Following pilot training at a number of bases, he was assigned to Nellis Air Force Base for advanced day fighter training in F-86 Sabrejets. Upon completion of the eleven-week course, he was assigned to the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing at Victorville, California. In December 1954, the Wing was transferred to France, where he flew F-86 fighters until late 1957. He then returned to the United States to attend an aircraft maintenance officers course at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois. He completed the nine-month course in six months and was then assigned as an instructor at the school.
For two years, Captain Collins commanded a Mobile Training Detachment, and later, a Field Training Detachment at Chanute and Nellis Air Force Bases. In 1960, he was assigned to the Air Force Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
In 1961, Captain Collins completed Test Pilot School and was assigned to Fighter Operations. For the next two years at Edwards Air Force Base he tested new, sophisticated, and experimental Air Force fighters. Determined to improve his qualifications for selection as an astronaut, he enrolled in the newly established Aerospace Research Pilot School in 1963. Later that year, he was chosen as one of fourteen new astronauts from an original list of 271 applicants.
In the Spring of 1964, then Major Collins began his six-year career as an astronaut. Two years later, he commanded the Gemini 10 mission, setting a world altitude record and taking on the important task of walking in space to service an orbiting satellite. As the 17th American in space, Michael Collins was the first astronaut to walk out twice during a single mission, and in doing so, he helped to demonstrate the growing potential of man to perform the tasks essential to building and maintaining useful satellites in earth orbit. This mission projected him into national prominence portending the spectacular success of Apollo 11 just three years in the future.
In July, 1969, Colonel Collins became the Command Module pilot on Apollo 11, the historic first mission to land on the moon, and the most widely viewed and daring exploration of all time. As Command Module Pilot, he circumnavigated the moon alone while Eagle Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the lunar surface.
Colonel Collins was given the honor of addressing a joint session of Congress, and shortly thereafter he resigned his commission in the Air Force to take up the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. His primary responsibility with State Department was focused on its relations with the American public, with special emphasis on communicating with our youth.
Assistant Secretary Collins initiated a comprehensive youth participation program with several forward-looking aspects. His leadership made a strong impact and helped to provide a change in the essentially negative attitude on American campuses at the height of the Vietnam War.
In 1971, after fifteen months with the State Department, he was offered the opportunity to construct and then direct the newly authorized National Air and Space Museum. Thus, Michael Collins began what became an enduring and vitally important contribution to America — the building and operation of the Smithsonian’s most popular museum.
He was to spend seven years as the Museum’s director, but first he was charged with the task of organizing a staff, constructing a building, and furnishing its exhibits in time for the opening on July 4, 1976, to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. That he brought in this enterprise ahead of schedule and under budget was a remarkable achievement; that this museum continues to draw some ten million visitors a year after over twenty years of operation is a lasting testament to Michael Collins’ understanding of the role it would play in fostering the public interest in air and space exploration.
He demonstrated an outstanding ability to direct, coordinate, and organize the efforts of a wide range of people: contractors, scientists, artists, preservationists, historians, and the air and space community at large. A fitting capstone to a career spanning over thirty years of service to his country, the National Air and Space Museum enabled Michael Collins to realize his vision of teaching American youth their heritage and inspiring all to look to the future in space.
In 1970, he joined the Air Force Reserve, reaching the rank of major general in 1976. His duties included mobilization planning at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force and Air Force Systems Command at Andrews Air Force Base. Upon his retirement in 1982, he was lauded for his exemplary energy and intelligence in putting together the “best Reserve program of any major command in the Air Force.”
After seven years as Director of the National Air and Space Museum, in 1978 General Collins was named Under Secretary for the Smithsonian Institution, responsible for administering its far-flung enterprises throughout this country and overseas. His unique managerial skills enabled him to make an immediate and positive impact on the operations of the Smithsonian. Upon his departure in 1980, his commendation stated that “. . . the Smithsonian and the Nation are forever indebted to him for his service.”
In 1980, General Collins became Vice-President for Field Operations, Vought Corporation, a position he held until 1985, when he resigned to become an independent consultant.
Michael Collins is the author of several books on space. In 1974 he wrote Carrying the Fire, describing his experiences in the space program. It is the single best book of its genre and remains to this day the standard reference on space travel.
General Collins has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Collier Trophy, the Harmon Trophy, the Thomas D. White Trophy, and the Goddard Trophy. The Air Force awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross. NASA awarded General Collins its Distinguished Service Medal and the Exceptional Service Medal. Eleven foreign countries have decorated him for his space achievements. His likeness appears on a Romanian stamp issue.
Among his many affiliations, he is a Fellow, American Astronautical Society; Fellow, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Board of Directors, Air Force Historical Foundation; Trustee, National Geographic Society; and a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs. He has been awarded honorary degrees from six colleges and universities.
General Collins’ career exemplifies the purpose of the Military Academy: to produce graduates who will give a lifetime of service to this country. In over thirty years of dedication to the ideals of West Point, Michael Collins has made permanent and invaluable contributions to the national security. His resolute courage and peerless leadership as an astronaut on perilous and record-setting missions have insured his place in history’s pantheon of eminent explorers. No one has served his country better in a wide variety of difficult and challenging assignments than General Collins.
Accordingly, the Association of Graduates takes pride in presenting the 1998 Distinguished Graduate Award to Michael Collins, USMA Class of 1952.

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