President Obama Honors Apollo 11 Astronauts

On the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, President Obama thanked the Apollo 11 crew for its courage and promised to keep the space program alive for future generations of space pioneers.

At the White House Monday afternoon, the president welcomed Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the crew of the first manned mission to land on the moon. They were joined by NASA administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, who was confirmed as the first African-American head of the agency last week

PHOTO: Archival ABC News footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

"I think it's fair to say that the touchstone for excellence in exploration and discovery is always going to be represented by the men of Apollo 11," said President Obama. "The country continues to draw inspiration from what you've done."

He recalled welcoming home Apollo astronauts when he was child in Hawaii and said his grandfather would point to them as examples of American ingenuity and perseverance. He also affirmed support for NASA and vowed to make math and science "cool again."

NASA isn't just about feeding our sense of curiosity, he said, but it also has practical applications.

VIDEO: Former astronauts complain about NASA funding and direction of the space program.

"On this 40th anniversary, we are all thankful and grateful for what you've done," he said. And as other generations look up at the sky, he said, "we want to make sure NASA is going to be there for them when they want to take their journey."

Apollo Astronauts: Renew Commitment to Space

Earlier in the day, at a gathering at NASA's headquarters Monday morning, astronauts from various Apollo missions gathered and defended the space program and called on public leaders chart a course for manned missions to Mars.

Not only would the challenge reinvigorate the country's spirit of adventure and exploration, it could jump-start the economy, they said.

"If a little bit of the stimulus flows toward space, which is a program that brings technology and knowledge back to the people of the Earth, it [would be] part of the stimulus program that would really pay off with a lot of dividends," said Jim Lovell.

Charles Duke, who flew with Apollo 16 in 1972, also said that investing in the space program is investing in the country's future.

"There was not one dime spent on the moon, it was spent in America," he said. "It created technology that we all enjoy today," he said, adding that his BlackBerry has 65,000 times the memory of their Apollo computers. "We should continue to invest some resources as a nation into the future like every company does."

"We opened the door to future of exploration by touching down on another body," said Aldrin, but he said the country now needs to target Mars.

Aldrin, a long-time futurist and proponent of traveling to Mars, suggested creating a plan for sending people on a one-way mission to Mars, saying it is four to 10 times more expensive for explorers to return to Earth.

While the former Apollo 11 astronauts have set their sights on sending astronauts to Mars, the current mandate, laid out by President Bush and so far backed by President Obama, is to send unmanned probes to Mars in the short term, with a goal to eventually use the moon as a base for human exploration of Mars and beyond.

Mr. Bush announced a "vision for space exploration" in 2004, after the loss of the shuttle Columbia. He proposed returning astronauts to the moon by 2020, and then going on to Mars, but he did not give a target date.

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