Image: Armstrong Aldrin Collins
Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins is presented his Langley Gold Medal for aviation by Vice President Al Gore on Tuesday, as fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin applaud.
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msnbc.com

The 30th anniversary of the first manned moon landing was marked Tuesday with reflections on past glories and present tragedies — including the untimely loss of John F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the president who spurred the space race. But it was the future that most seemed to spark the imaginations of the three men of Apollo 11.

APOLLO 11 commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins made the rounds in Washington 30 years to the day after Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the lunar surface, leaving Collins to circle the moon alone.

Vice President Al Gore presented them with the prestigious Langley Gold Medal for aviation achievement at a ceremony at the National Air and Space Museum. The trio then went to the White House, giving President Bill Clinton a glass-enclosed moon rock during an Oval Office meeting.

“They and everyone at NASA over the years have made an extraordinary contribution to our nation and to humanity. I am very grateful to them,” Clinton said.

The landing of July 20, 1969, was the culmination of a goal set by Kennedy in 1961:

It was Gore who connected the father’s goal to the son’s tragedy.

“John Kennedy Jr. wore that mantle of possibility and discovery, the belief that we can reach a new horizon if we have the urge to try,” Gore said. The ceremony also paid tribute to Apollo 12 moonwalker Pete Conrad and Air and Space Museum chief Donald Engen, both of whom died in accidents this month.

The astronauts, all now pushing 70, discussed the past and the future of space flight during a session with schoolchildren at the Freedom Forum’s Newseum in Arlington, Va. Tim Russert, NBC News’ Washington bureau chief, served as moderator for the event, which was broadcast by MSNBC on the Internet and cable television.

During the rare joint appearance, Armstrong repeated the first words he spoke on the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The former commander said those words came easily to him: “It was a natural thing. It was a step off the lunar module — a very short step, only about 6 inches down. But more than a third of a million Americans had been working for a decade to make this happen, and it had been a lifelong dream. So it was a big step for all of those people.”

In response to questions asked by the students, the trio reminisced about planting that first flag on the moon (“It was not easy to put that staff in the ground,” Aldrin recalled) and donning special quarantine suits after their return (“It was a mess to put on,” Aldrin said).

Collins admitted he was scared during the flight, then amended that admission: “Maybe ‘scared’ is not as good a word as ‘worried.’” He and the others said they weren’t surprised to hear that a speech was prepared for President Richard Nixon to read in case Apollo 11 ended in disaster — a revelation that came out just this month. But they all said they didn’t dwell on the potential for failure.

“We believed that we were going to succeed, and we had to go with that viewpoint in mind,” Armstrong said. “So we didn’t prepare for not succeeding.”

Rounding out Tuesday’s panel was Lori Garver, NASA’s associate administrator for policy and plans. She told the schoolchildren that within 100 years, humans would be returning to the moon, living in space colonies and exploring Mars and asteroids.

The astronauts seemed to warm up to that vision: Aldrin referred to his long-held vision for opening up space to masses of tourists and travelers, and as a result opening a wider path to the moon and Mars. “We can do all of that in 20 years,” he said.

IMAGE: The Space Transporter
Collins observed that “Mars is clearly the next place to go. ... I think it’s a lot more interesting place than the moon.” The Red Planet may hold evidence of ancient organisms, or perhaps even still-existing microbial forms of life, he said.

All three said they believed intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe, although they couldn’t predict where or even whether it might be found.

“It seems to me the height of arrogance to say that our little stupid sun off in one obscure corner of an odd galaxy called the Milky Way should be the only one in the whole universe capable of developing what we sometimes refer to as intelligent life,” Collins said.

Where would earthlings fit into the grand scheme? “Not too high,” Collins joked.

Image: Encarta
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It was left to Armstrong to reflect on Apollo’s lesson to the world at large. The former commander noted that Kennedy’s Cold War challenge to send Americans to the moon before the end of the decade had struck some as impossible and impractical, even unwise.

But Armstrong hoped Apollo’s success showed that it was worthwhile attempting grand feats, particularly if “there is benefit to be gained.”

“I think people the world over were encouraged to try things that before they hadn’t been quite willing to attempt,” he said.

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