(CBS SF/APc`c`) — Former NASA astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 command module during the historic first manned lunar landing in 1969, has died at the age of 90.

A statement from Collins’ family said he passed away Wednesday after a battle with cancer.

Collins was at the controls of the Apollo 11 command module on July 20, 1969, orbiting around the moon as his colleagues, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, became the first human to set foot on the moon while millions of people on earth watched the event live.

“Today the nation lost a true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration in astronaut Michael Collins. As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module – some called him ‘the loneliest man in history’ – while his colleagues walked on the Moon for the first time, he helped our nation achieve a defining milestone,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk in a prepared statement.

While Collins traveled some 238,000 miles to the moon and came within 69 miles, he never set foot on the surface.  Collins spent the eight-day mission piloting the command module, Columbia. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface in the lunar lander Eagle, Collins remained alone for nearly 28 hours.

“NASA mourns the loss of this accomplished pilot and astronaut, a friend of all who seek to push the envelope of human potential. Whether his work was behind the scenes or on full view, his legacy will always be as one of the leaders who took America’s first steps into the cosmos. And his spirit will go with us as we venture toward farther horizons,” said Jurczyk.

The Collins family said in a statement:

“We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today, after a valiant battle with cancer. He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side. Mike always faced the challenges of life with grace and humility, and faced this, his final challenge, in the same way. We will miss him terribly. Yet we also know how lucky Mike felt to have lived the life he did. We will honor his wish for us to celebrate, not mourn, that life. Please join us in fondly and joyfully remembering his sharp wit, his quiet sense of purpose, and his wise perspective, gained both from looking back at Earth from the vantage of space and gazing across calm waters from the deck of his fishing boat.”