As the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of sending the first man to the moon, astronaut Michael Collins, the command module pilot on Apollo 11, says he has no problem with being known as “the third guy.”
“I was the base camp operator, if you will, or I was just Neil [Armstrong] and Buzz [Aldrin]’s ticket home, is another way of saying it,” Collins said Wednesday during a celebration at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum commemorating their journey.
The daylong summit sought to look back at the moon landing, discuss ongoing space projects, and veer into the future of extraterrestrial exploration.
“As I look back on the first lunar landing 50 years ago, I think it was a marvelous time,” Collins said in an interview.
At the event, Caroline Kennedy, former US ambassador to Japan, evoked the memory of her father, President John F. Kennedy, and his legacy of pushing the United States to go to the moon.
“President Kennedy knew that by uniting Americans in a common goal that would advance democracy, he would inspire American excellence in science, technology, engineering, but also imagination, dedication, courage, and patriotism,” she said. “In doing so, he changed the course of history and improved the lives of people on Earth.”
Hailing from the United States, Russia, Italy, and Japan, a panel of astronauts described the day-to-day activities onboard the International Space Station, and expressed how fortunate they felt to travel beyond the reaches of the Earth.
US astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson described Sally Ride — the first US woman to travel to space — as an inspiration. Caldwell Dyson has spent more than 188 days in space, flying to the International Space Station in 2007 and 2010.
“I got to hand it Sally, she made it look really normal,” Caldwell Dyson said. “But it was Sally who did her job well and didn’t make it seem too extraordinary that a woman was doing that.”
Former NASA officials and academics in extraterrestrial research discussed how spacecraft has benefitted efforts such as fighting climate change and looking for extraterrestrial life.
“Are we alone in the universe? Is there a more profound question that we as scientists can ask?” said Laurie Leshin, a former NASA official and president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
The summit comes as some countries, including the United States, are looking to reengage space exploration efforts, including return trips to the moon. Vice President Mike Pence announced in March that America plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2024, saying the United States “must remain first in space in this century as in the last.”
While the new space race might fuel tensions among competing nations, US astronaut Christopher Cassidy said there can be tensions but cooperation is essential.
“Any tensions or political issues dissolve when it comes down to people executing the mission,” said Cassidy, who was born in Salem, Mass., and participated in space flights in 2009 and 2013.
Recent years have also seen the emergence of private companies — such as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX — trying to construct their own rockets to send citizens into space.
Kennedy concluded by interviewing Bezos, the founder and head of Amazon. Bezos announced in May that his private aerospace manufacturer would launch a manned mission to the moon. On Wednesday, he spoke about how fascinating the Apollo program was.
“It’s extraordinary what they accomplished,” he said. “The more you know about the Apollo program the more amazed you become.”
Bezos also discussed the difficulties of creating a space company given how much capital and infrastructure it takes to build rockets.
“If you’re in your dorm room, you’re not going to start a space company,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time because building infrastructure takes a long time.”
On July 20 — the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon five decades ago — the JFK Presidential Library and Museum will host a “Space Fest” that will include speakers, activities, and a behind-the-scenes look at space artifacts.
Remembering the aftermath of the mission, Collins said he couldn’t think of “a single event” before the Apollo 11 mission that generated as much approval across the country and the world.
“After the flight of Apollo 11, we — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and I — visited, I think, 29 different cities in a whirlwind tour,” Collins said. Noting the moment of global celebration, he added: “And I was amazed everywhere we went, people said, ‘We did it, we did it.’ ”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about Sally Ride. She was the first US woman to travel to space.
Aidan Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.