The death of Michael Collins this week brought new appreciation for the “third man” of Apollo 11. The Air Force colonel who piloted the spacecraft Columbia 60 miles high while fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon was remembered for his unique role, his grace and kindness, and the eloquence with which he described his singular mission.
News of Collins’ death brought warm memories for Richard Wiese.
The Weston resident — whose Westport-based “Born to Explore” television programs have won many Emmy and other awards — served 2 stints as president of the Explorers Club. Since 1904 the New York organization has promoted scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space. Club members have been first to the North Pole, South Pole, the summit of Mount Everest, the deepest point in the ocean, and (you guessed it) the surface of the moon.
In 2019, Wiese wanted the Explorers Club to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in a memorable way. Armstrong died in 2012, but he assembled 8 astronauts from various Apollo missions, and several shuttle astronauts, including Katherine Sullivan — the first woman to walk in space.
The night before the big event with 1,500 guests, Wiese hosted a small dinner for those explorers and a few family members. He knew a few of them, but had never met Collins.
The Columbia commander, a widower, brought 2 daughters. (Kate Collins is an actress best known for “All My Children.”)
“They all talked shop,” Wiese recalls. “Being a fly on the wall was sensational.”
After dinner they headed to the Explorers Club headquarters, for a new members’ reception. It was held in the newly renovated “Apollo Room.”
“When those 8 Apollo astronauts walked in, the seas parted,” Wiese says. “In the pantheon of explorers, they were it.”
He recalls Collins as “easy-going, gentle, a beautiful soul.” He told Wiese, “Everyone always says I was the lonely guy up there in space. I was fine. I wasn’t worried about myself. I just worried that if something happened to them, I’d have to return alone.”
“Five hundred years from now, when the 20th century is long gone, people will still remember the first time we left earth to walk on a celestial body,” Wiese says. “Michael Collins was a huge part of that.”
After he returned, Wiese adds, “He had a wonderful life. It was definitely well lived.”
As for Wiese: He’s traveled the world, exploring the land and sea. The Brown University graduate has cross country skied to the North Pole and lived with pygmies in Uganda and aboriginals in Australia; he even helped discover 202 forms of new life in the 1st microbial survey of Central Park. When he was 11 years old, Wiese climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his father.
Yet even before that, he dreamed of space.
In 1969, a week before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon — and Michael Collins flew above it — Wiese turned 10 years old. He had just gotten a telescope.
“I looked at the moon, hoping to see them on it,” he remembers. “I never, ever imagined that one day I’d be able to meet men who went there.”