WASHINGTON -- On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the first human moon landing, the astronauts on that storied mission spoke of their great luck in being the first to go to the moon and lamented that NASA is working to send humans not to Mars but back to the moon.
In a rare joint appearance Sunday, 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 Neil 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, Buzz 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 crew will meet today with President Obama, who has a checkered history on support of human space exploration. During the presidential campaign, he endorsed President George W. Bush's plan to send astronauts back to the moon, but last month the White House ordered a panel of independent space experts to reconsider that goal.
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.