The first man to set foot on the moon has hailed the space race of the 1950s and '60s as an example of peaceful competition between rival superpowers. Legendary U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong spoke at Washington's Air and Space Museum Sunday on the eve of the 40th anniversary of his landing on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.
Apollo 11 Mission Commander Neil Armstrong will forever be remembered for setting foot on the moon and uttering the immortal words: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." In the four decades since, Armstrong has rarely spoken at length in public about the historic space voyage.
And so it was with great anticipation that hundreds of dignitaries gathered at the Air and Space Museum to hear presentations by Armstrong, along with crewmates Michael Collins and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.
Armstrong paid tribute to American physicist Robbert Goddard, who pioneered liquid-fueled rocketry in the 1920s. As for the space race between the United States and the former-Soviet Union that began in the 1950s and culminated with the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 70s, he said the rivalry served a valuable purpose.
Armstrong said, "It was the ultimate peaceful competition: USA versus USSR. It was intense. It did allow both sides to take the high road, with the objectives of science and learning and exploration. Eventually, it provided a mechanism for engendering cooperation between former adversaries. In that sense, among others, it was an exceptional national investment for both sides."
Images of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon were seen by more than half a billion enraptured viewers on Earth. To this day, the Apollo 11 mission remains one of humanity's greatest and most-celebrated technological achievements.
But while NASA relives its past glory, critics say America's space program has been adrift and unable to live up to the promise it demonstrated 40 years ago. The Space Shuttle program is outdated and slated to be retired next year. So far, no successor-vehicle has been built. A planned return mission to the moon is years away. NASA's budget, which accounted for four percent of federal spending in the 1960s, stands at less than one percent today. And, the United States is no longer the world's top producer of mathematicians and engineers, leading some to question whether the nation possesses the brain power necessary to propel the next chapter of human space exploration.
Buzz Aldrin delivered an impassioned plea to revitalize America's space program and commit to sending humans to Mars.
The astronaut said, "America, do you still dream great dreams? Do you still believe in yourself? Are you ready for a great national challenge? I call on the next generation and our political leaders to give this answer: Yes We Can!"
Aldrin will have an opportunity to make his case to President Barack Obama Monday when he and his Apollo 11 crewmates meet with the president at the White House.