The astronauts who earned their fame going to the moon now can't agree on whether the USA should go back.
At NASA headquarters earlier Monday in Washington, D.C., Apollo 11 moonwalker Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin lit into his former Apollo colleagues for supporting NASA's plan to return humans to the moon. Aldrin could not contain himself after listening to moonwalkers Eugene Cernan and Charles Duke urge the United States to send astronauts back to the lunar surface.
The three were attending a reunion of Apollo crewmembers on the 40th anniversary of the first steps on the moon.
"America to Mars is what ought to be, not America back to the moon," he insisted. He scoffed at Cernan and Duke's proposal to practice for a Mars shot by setting up a lunar base where humans would live and conduct research.
"Why go to the most difficult place, the surface of the moon, to do that?" Aldrin said. "Why not do those at the space station?"
After his attack, Aldrin laid an apologetic hand on Duke's arm and said, "Sorry."
At the direction of former president George W. Bush, NASA began working to send crews to the moon about 2020. Those plans are now being reconsidered by the Obama administration.
Aldrin stepped onto the moon in 1969 just after Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the lunar surface. Duke spent three days on the moon in 1972, and Cernan later that year became the last man to leave footprints in the lunar dust.
The Apollo 11 crew met Monday afternoon with President Obama, who said, "The country continues to draw inspiration from what you've done."
Aldrin was known even during his Apollo days for his pugnacious arguments. He had "strongly held opinions," wrote Apollo flight director Christopher Kraft in his memoir, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, and "wasn't quiet in letting it be known" that he wanted to be the first, not the second, man to walk on the moon.
On Sunday, in a rare joint appearance, the members of the Apollo 11 crew recognized that what for them had been a daring flight was also a stand-in for hostilities between the Soviet Union and the United States.
"The space race faded away. It was the ultimate peaceful competition," said Armstrong, 78, and it "did allow both sides to take the high road."
On July 20, 1969, Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, Aldrin the second. Michael Collins remained in orbit around the moon aboard the mother ship that would carry the three men back to Earth.
Collins, 78, said he had gotten to be part of the Apollo 11 crew through "10% shrewd planning, 90% blind luck." At the same time, he said "sometimes I think I flew to the wrong place" — a reference to his belief that Mars is more interesting than the moon.
Aldrin, 79, also called himself "lucky" and pushed Americans to set their sights on Mars rather than the moon. "America, do you still dream great dreams? Do you still believe in yourself? Are you ready for a great national challenge?" he asked.
The three astronauts chose vastly different paths after the events that made them mega-celebrities. Armstrong taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati, then worked as an aerospace executive. He rarely speaks in public.
Collins wrote a memoir, headed the National Air and Space Museum and generally avoids the limelight.
Aldrin battled depression and alcoholism, a struggle chronicled in a book published this summer. He speaks widely, conducts frequent interviews and even appears in a new rap video.