Historic experiences of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins live on through his papers in Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech.

A hand-written letter from Charles Lindburgh and a well-used flight manual that traveled to the moon and back signed by Michael Collins and inscribed “the real McCoy” are two of the most riveting items found in the Michael Collins papers in the University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives. Many of Collins’ photos, documents, pieces of memorabilia, and awards vividly exemplify his work, impact on aerospace, and even his personality. 

From astronaut and command module pilot on Apollo 11 to accomplished author, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the State Department, and founding director of the National Air and Space Museum in D.C., Collins enjoyed a full career in service.

Upon Collins’ passing on April 28, 2021, former Virginia Tech archivist and head of Special Collections Glenn McMullen recalled his experiences in the 1980s working with him and others to create the Archives of American Aerospace Exploration for the University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives. 

A photo of the Apollo 11 flight plan, with handwriting across the center that reads, "The Real McCoy! Michael Collins"
Apollo 11 Flight Plan. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives at the University Libraries at Virginia Tech.

This group of collections, one of the most extensive of its kind, contains personal and professional papers, other documents, and memorabilia from a range of NASA administrators, engineers, project directors, and, as in the case of Collins, an astronaut. These materials document not only Apollo 11, but many historic NASA missions, and are available at Virginia Tech largely due to aeronautical engineering graduate Christopher Kraft, class of ’44. In 1986, Kraft, former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and head of flight operations during Apollo 11, worked with McMullen to donate his own papers to the collection and encouraged his NASA colleagues to do the same.

McMullen remembers writing to nearly 100 astronauts from the early years of NASA's space program and getting their responses. He said Collins was more interested than most. So the pair exchanged letters, spoke on the telephone, and then McMullen made a visit to Collins’ home near American University in Washington, D.C. to complete the deal.

“Collins had no connection with Virginia Tech except through Chris Kraft, but he was very interested in his papers being in a growing archive,” said McMullen. “He invited me to his house. We had lunch together. I remember his friendliness, helpfulness, and willingness to donate his papers to a place he had never been to, but knew only through the university’s reputation and the recommendation of his colleague Chris Kraft. 

“I remember going into his basement at his home. He let me take whatever he thought would be of interest and helped me stack it in my car to bring back to Blacksburg,” said McMullen. “He was glad to find a home for his materials and was happy with the idea that people would be interested in his papers.”

McMullen said working with Collins was a highlight of his professional career.

A signed photo of the Apollo 11 astronauts in their spacesuits, without helmets or gloves, sitting together smiling against a photo backdrop of the moon.
Apollo 11 Flight Crew, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin Aldrin. Drawings by Haley Stout. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives at the University Libraries at Virginia Tech.

“Usually archivists work with survivors of people who have passed away and left their papers for the archives,” said McMullen. “Meeting someone who was the creator of the papers and of some renown was a good experience. I enjoyed working with him, he was very down to Earth.”

University Libraries’ archivist Marc Brodsky works with classes and researchers using the collection. “The Collins collection has shown its versatility by being used in English and writing classes as well as by history classes!” said Brodsky.

It’s an invaluable trove of primary source documents that spotlight the history of space discovery.

The Apollo 11 moon lander floating in empty space.
Apollo 11 lander taken by Michael Collins, with additional writings by him. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives at the University Libraries at Virginia Tech.

“To have Collins’ rich collection, that is one of many NASA-related collections, presents an incredible opportunity for researchers and fans of the space program alike to take a deep dive into the lives and accomplishments of some of these individuals and the truly remarkable accomplishments of the program, generally,” said Brodsky. “When we presented several exhibits to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, which drew heavily from the Collins and Kraft papers, they were among our most visited exhibits ever.”

A portion of the Collins collection is available online, but it and the other aerospace collections can be explored in their entirety by visiting Special Collections and University Archives. They are currently open by-appointment only. Instructions for making an appointment are available at their website.

Space discovery has captured the imagination of millions throughout the decades. These collections capture and preserve the excitement and dedication of those who experienced it first hand and were generous in sharing their experiences with past, present, and future generations.

By Ann Brown