WASHINGTON — Almost four decades after he stepped on the moon, former NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin bluntly called on Congress and the American people Sunday to use the memory of Apollo 11 as inspiration to one day visit Mars.
"Apollo 11 was a symbol of what a great nation and a great people can do if we work hard and work together … that is what Apollo 11 means today," said Aldrin, who appeared at the National Air and Space Museum with fellow crew members Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins.
"America, do you still dream a great dream? Do you still believe in yourself?" Aldrin said to a sold-out audience of about 500 — about 7,000 sought tickets — at the National Air and Space Museum, including incoming NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut. "I call on the next generation and our political leaders to give this answer."
In the decades since their moon mission, the three astronauts struggled with fame. Aldrin, 79, battled alcoholism and depression while Armstrong and Collins, both now 78, generally shun the spotlight. Collins, who piloted the module while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, explained why he prefers to remain in the shadows.
"Some things about current society irritate me, such as the adulation of celebrities and the inflation of heroism," said Collins in a recent chat with NASA officials in lieu of other interviews.
He went on to downplay the role of the Apollo missions.
"Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don't count astronauts among them. We work very hard. We did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had (been) hired on to do. In no way did we meet the criterion of the Congressional Medal of Honor: above and beyond the call of duty," he said.
Still, that hasn't stopped a celebration of the anniversary. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Bolden and the Apollo 11 crew today.
The audience Sunday night heard little about the historic mission. Rather the remarks looked forward.
Aldrin made a pitch for a Mars mission. 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."
Armstrong only discussed Apollo 11 for 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.
Collins, who circled the moon alone while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on it, said the moon was not interesting, but Mars is.
"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."
Information from McClatchy Newspapers and Associated Press was used in this report.