Nearly a year after his death, first moonwalker Neil Armstrong's crewmates declared on Thursday that future missions to Mars should serve as part of the Apollo program's legacy.
The other moonwalker on 1969's Apollo 11 mission, Buzz Aldrin, paraphrased President John F. Kennedy after laying out a vision for voyages to Mars and its moons by the 2030s. "In the spirit of Apollo, we choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, as we boldly venture into the future — coming, going in peace for all mankind," Aldrin said during an Armstrong memorial service at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Aldrin recalled that the third crew member on Apollo 11, Michael Collins, boiled his prescription for the space effort's future down to three words: "Go to Mars."
"I think I interpreted that as your saying, 'Let's leave the details to Buzz,'" Aldrin told Collins, sparking a wave of laughter from the crowd of 700. "I would like to take this occasion of Neil's commanding Apollo 11 to dedicate a bit to the future."
Thursday's service was presented as a Texas tribute to Armstrong, who died last August at the age of 82 after suffering heart problems. It followed up on a series of ceremonies in Armstrong's native Ohio, in Florida and the nation's capital. Glynn Lunney, who was a flight director for Apollo 11, said such ceremonies are important because they teach people about the Apollo legacy as it is being transformed "from contemporary history that we have directly observed into something that's more reported and recorded."
Human face of Apollo
"Neil will be the human face and the human spirit of the Apollo program," Lunney said. "People are going to look back on it in years to come, and they're going to be in awe of what got done in those times. Neil is probably going to be the human focus of that interest. And what we'd like to do here at this ceremony is introduce more of you to the kind of man he was: private, quiet, self-disciplined, humble, competent. ... Neil was all that, and he was more. Fate just managed to get Neil in the position where he was the representative for all of us and all of the space program, going forward in time, and we're very lucky, we're very well-served that that was the case."
Before he took Apollo 11's "one giant leap for mankind" on July 20, 1969, Armstrong served as a combat pilot in the Korean War, a Navy test pilot, and an astronaut who dealt calmly with a wildly spinning space capsule during the Gemini 8 mission in 1966. After Apollo 11, he became an ambassador for the space effort — a public role he wasn't always comfortable with.
Collins, who circled the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the surface below, admitted that Armstrong was sometimes "hard to talk to." But he also recalled a post-Apollo goodwill visit to Yugoslavia, during which Armstrong broke the ice by chatting with President Josip Broz Tito's wife about Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla. Afterward, Armstrong told Collins that he chose the conversation topic because Madame Broz was related to Tesla.
"Neil was just smart as hell, and not just about flying. His head was a reservoir of facts, some very useful at times," Collins quipped.
Even though Armstrong was famously reserved in public, "he was definitely the right choice to be the commander of the first lunar landing," Collins said.
Looking to the future
During his talk at the service, Aldrin urged President Barack Obama to bring NASA's vision for future space exploration into sharper focus.
"I'd like to see this president clarify and restate [that] a human mission to an asteroid in 2025 is a test of an interplanetary spacecraft primarily, not an investigation of an asteroid," Aldrin told the audience gathered at Johnson Space Center. "And as a test of that spacecraft, we could then look forward in 2030 to humans reaching the moons of Mars."
Aldrin said the costs of retracing Apollo's steps to the moon would be "disproportionate to what we would receive." Instead, he advocated robotic lunar exploration, directed from spacecraft in the moon's vicinity. Aldrin said the United States could also contribute to an "international lunar development authority," but should keep its national focus on the exploration and settlement of Mars.
After the service in Johnson Space Center's Teague Auditorium, attendees moved outside to dedicate a tree to Armstrong in the center's Memorial Tree Grove. Among those in attendance were Armstrong's sons, Rick and Mark, and his former wife Janet. Armstrong's widow, Carol, was unable to attend, said center director Ellen Ochoa.
Ochoa, a former astronaut, said Armstrong's legacy would live on in the next phase of America's space effort. "We set high expectations for ourselves," she said. "We work hard to overcome obstacles. We learn all we can about the systems we need to operate, striving to ask the right questions and being prepared for all situations. We realize it's about accomplishing the mission as a team. And we do that because of the example Neil set."
More about the future space effort and Neil Armstrong's legacy:
- Mars is beyond reach without budget boost
- House GOP: No to asteroid, yes to moon and Mars
- Cosmic Log archive on Neil Armstrong
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.