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Apollo astronauts look ahead ... to Mars?

Image: Apollo 11 crew
Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins stand in front of a mockup of their lunar module at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington on Sunday - the eve of the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.Mark Avino / NASM
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The astronauts who first landed on the moon aren't dwelling on their small lunar steps. Instead, two of them on Sunday urged mankind to take a giant leap to Mars.

In one of their few joint public appearances, the crew of Apollo 11 spoke on the eve of the 40th anniversary of man's first landing on the moon, but didn't get soggy with nostalgia. They preferred to talk about the future and the more distant past.

On Monday, the three astronauts will get another chance to make the pitch for a Mars trip, this time to someone with a little more sway: President Barack Obama.

Sunday night, a packed crowd at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum — 7,000 people applied in a lottery for 485 seats — didn't get the intimate details of the Eagle's landing on the moon with little fuel left, or what the moon looked like, or what it felt like to be there.

A pitch for Mars from Aldrin
They got a pitch for Mars from the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. He said the best way to honor the Apollo astronauts "is to follow in our footsteps; to boldly go again on a new mission of exploration."

Aldrin said trips to the moon should be seen only as a "steppingstone" to wider travels, including flybys of comets and asteroids (such as Apophis, an asteroid that is due to come close to Earth in 2029 and just might collide in 2036). He laid out a detailed timeline that would lead to Mars landings by 2035.

"I believe we deserve to do a little bit more than footprints on the moon. ... I believe we can do that," Aldrin said. Then he followed up by quoting Obama's campaign slogan: "Yes, we can."  

A history lesson from Armstrong
The first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, discussed Apollo 11 for only about 11 seconds. He gave a professorial lecture titled "Goddard, Governance and Geophysics," looking at the inventions and discoveries that led to his historic "small step for a man" on July 20, 1969.

Armstrong pointed out that American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard's invention of the liquid-fueled rocket eventually led to Nazi Germany's use of V-2 rockets as instruments of war. That, in turn, led to the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Amid the Cold War, the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 sparked Sputnik and the space race that followed — with the moon landing as President John Kennedy's chosen finish line.

He said the space race was "the ultimate peaceful competition: USA versus U.S.S.R. It did allow both sides to take the high road with the objectives of science and learning and exploration."

Armstrong's bottom line was that science, statecraft and military policy had to come together to produce his "one small step." Would humans have explored the moon if it weren't for Goddard, the challenges of governance and the International Geophysical Year? "Perhaps," Armstrong said, "but certainly never on the schedule as it actually occurred."

A ‘new economic paradigm’ from Collins
Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins, who circled the moon alone while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on it, said the moon was not interesting, but Mars is.

From a launch out of the weeds to a special delivery in orbit, see the best space offerings from January 2014.

"Sometimes I think I flew to the wrong place. Mars was always my favorite as a kid and it still is today," Collins said. "I'd like to see Mars become the focus, just as John F. Kennedy focused on the moon."

But Collins spent most of his time reflecting on Earth rather than on other worlds. Not even the famous pictures of our home planet as seen from space provide a true sense of its beauty from afar, he contended. "It doesn't sparkle like the real thing did," Collins said.

In the 40 years since Apollo 11, Earth's population has grown from 3 billion to more than 6 billion, said Collins, who spent stints as a State Department official and the director of the National Air and Space Museum after his moon trip. He feared that a global growth agenda would not be "wise, healthy or sustainable" in the long run.

"We need a new economic paradigm that somehow can produce prosperity without this kind of growth," he said.

Apollo veterans look ahead ...
The man who founded and directed Mission Control Houston, Christopher Kraft Jr., also jumped on the go-somewhere-new, do-something-different bandwagon.

"What we need is new technology; we have not had that since Apollo," Kraft said as part of the lecture at the Smithsonian. "I say to Mr. Obama: Let's get on with it. Let's invest in the future."

As the men of NASA of the 1960s talked about new technology and new goals, the current NASA is still looking back at the moon.

NASA is still marching toward a goal of returning to the moon of Armstrong and Aldrin and this time putting a base there. The current plan is based on building new rockets that the former NASA administrator called "Apollo on steroids," with an alternative — a derivative of the space shuttle — floating through the space agency.

Although they didn't directly criticize NASA's current plans, Aldrin and Collins said the moon is old hat. Collins said he was afraid that NASA's exploration plans would be bogged down by a return visit to the moon.

And even though Armstrong didn't talk about the future in his 19-minute discourse, Aldrin dragged his commander onto the Mars bandwagon anyway. "It was a great personal honor to walk on the moon, but as Neil once observed, there are still places to go beyond belief," he said. "Isn't it time to continue our journey outward, past the moon?"

... And look back
The buildup to Monday's 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing has provided ample opportunities for former astronauts to reflect on the space effort's legacy.

During a Friday night ceremony at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, 12 Apollo astronauts received the National Aviation Hall of Fame's "Spirit of Flight" award — and traded reminiscences as well.

From a launch out of the weeds to a special delivery in orbit, see the best space offerings from January 2014.

In Dayton, Armstrong recalled that gazing at the moon's surface as he took his first steps "was spectacular" but said he and Aldrin had little time to savor the experience.

"We didn't rest hardly five seconds when we got a message from Mission Control, saying get on with the next item," he said.

The last man to walk on the moon, Apollo 17's Eugene Cernan, also flew on the mission preceding Armstrong's, which was a dress rehearsal for the landing to come. He joked that his job on Apollo 10 was paint a white line to the moon that Apollo 11 could follow.

"Everyone knew Neil could land on the moon, but we didn't have a lot of confidence Neil could find it," Cernan quipped.

"I've been listening to that for 40 years, and this is not the time to change my position," Armstrong shot back, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Charles Duke, who was at Mission Control for the Apollo 11 landing and later flew to the moon on Apollo 16, recalled the tension as Armstrong used the last of his fuel to find a suitable landing spot. "I can't say it was panic, but it was a lot of attention to detail in Mission Control," Duke said. "The fuel level is going down, down, down, and things are getting real tense." When there were only 30 seconds of fuel left, "it got dead silent."

Aldrin told reporters that he still has the felt-tipped pen he used as a makeshift switch to fire up the engines that lifted him and Armstrong off the moon. The actual switch lever had somehow broken off, but Aldrin had a pen in his shoulder pocket that just happened to fit the hole for the circuit breaker switch. The circuit breaker held, the engines fired, and the two astronauts were on their way.

"The pen and the circuit breaker are in my possession because we do get a few memorabilia to kind of symbolize things that happened," Aldrin said.

During a book signing in Dayton, Aldrin said that landing on the moon was "the climax, maybe, of my life."

"Landing is more important than walking around outside, despite what everybody wants to think," he said. "Landing opens the door to do everything else that had never been done before."

This report includes information from The Associated Press and

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