WASHINGTON -- Hailing the Apollo 11 astronauts as "three genuine American heroes," President Obama said Monday that exploration spurs ingenuity and inspires students in math and science.
In a White House ceremony commemorating the day 40 years ago when Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin took man's first steps on the moon, Obama compared their accomplishment to his goal of the United States having the highest college graduation rates in the world by 2020.
The president said he wanted to use the anniversary of the Apollo moon landing to show that "math and science are cool again."
"The touchstone for excellence in exploration and discovery is always going to be represented by the men of Apollo 11," Obama said. He said their work sparked "innovation, the drive, the entrepreneurship, the creativity back here on Earth."
Obama recalled watching Apollo astronauts return to Hawaii after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. He said he'd sit on his grandfather's shoulders and "we'd pretend like they could see us as we were waving at folks coming home."
Obama praised Armstrong, Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins for their "calm under pressure, the grace with which these three gentlemen operated."
The president didn't talk about any future space missions. Aldrin and Collins used the anniversary to make a pitch for a mission to Mars, although others support NASA's plan to return to the moon.
Earlier in the day at a reunion of Apollo crewmembers at NASA headquarters, Aldrin asked two former colleagues — Eugene Cernan and Charles Duke — what would be gained from going to the moon.
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.
"America to Mars is what ought to be, not America back to the moon," Aldrin 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?" he said. "Why not do those at the space station?"
After his sharp comments, Aldrin laid an apologetic hand on Duke's arm and said, "Sorry."
At the direction of President George W. Bush, NASA began working to send crews to the moon around 2020. Those plans are now being reconsidered by the Obama administration.
For his part, Obama said he wanted to make sure that NASA will be there for another generation of kids "when they want to take their journey."
However, he didn't say where that journey should go.
Contributing: Traci Watson; the Associated Press