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Apollo 11 crew recalls giant leap 35 years later

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin
From left: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.
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CNN's Miles O'Brien talks to the Apollo 11 crew.

Manned missions against unmanned missions.
Michael Collins
Neil Armstrong
Buzz Aldrin
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thirty-five years have passed since the landing on the moon, one of the 20th century's most indelible moments.

CNN's Miles O'Brien spoke Wednesday to the crew members of Apollo 11 after President Bush paid tribute to them in the Oval Office on the anniversary of the momentous occasion.

O'BRIEN: This is a rare gathering of the crew. Thirty-five years after that historic moment -- 35 years ago yesterday, of course, was the landing. And that initial walk by two out of the three gentlemen here. One of them was described, at that time, as the loneliest person on or off the planet.

Joining us now, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. The crew of Apollo 11 just spent some time with the president. Let's begin with the commander. How was the president today? What did he say about the current initiatives in space?

ARMSTRONG: The president was in marvelous spirits this morning. He didn't really talk to us -- he thanked us for our participation, but he really didn't talk so much about the future. He talked about the character of the country.

O'BRIEN: And you want to elaborate a little bit about that? What did he say?

ARMSTRONG: Well, I was extremely impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm about our heritage.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Michael Collins, today there's new talk of returning to the moon and Mars on NASA's part. Of course, on a day-to-day basis, there are all kinds of obstacles to that, specifically who is going to pay the bills.

Are you optimistic that the feat which you accomplished 35 years ago might happen one day again in some form or another?

COLLINS: I think certainly we'll go to the other planets. Mars is the next logical step as we go outbound. It's a fascinating planet, much more so than the moon.

You've recently seen a lot of information coming back from Mars, and I'd like to see that followed up with people actually populating Mars.

O'BRIEN: Thirty-five years ago, if we'd had this discussion, wouldn't you have predicted that there'd be a more permanent presence in space on the part of the U.S.?

COLLINS: I've always been a very bad predictor.

O'BRIEN: So you wouldn't have predicted it necessarily?

COLLINS: Not one way or the other.

O'BRIEN: Buzz Aldrin, your thought on where the space program is now and why it's taken 35 years to get to this point where it is focused on a destination?

ALDRIN: Back in those days, I think we were very pioneering. And in the pioneering age you move ahead very rapidly. We had competition in the world, and I think that spurred on the competition and spurred on the support for it. Things are a little different today. We're emphasizing cooperation in the world.

And I think we need to have more evolutionary approaches. Much as I would like to see a growing permanence toward Mars, I think we have to start out by going back to the moon first, the asteroids and the moons of Mars in a very gradual evolutionary process, one that we can afford and one we can go as we're able to pay for it.

O'BRIEN: This gradual evolutionary process, Neil Armstrong, is the approach right now, the Bush administration to NASA. Do you think that can work? It's a far cry [from] what you experienced in the Apollo days.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, it is a different approach. And I don't know a lot about the details of the plan. I think that's going to evolve over the next couple of years as this is discussed by NASA and the other members of the technological community and put some flesh on the bones, and I think then we'll be in a much better position to judge what really makes sense.

O'BRIEN: On this 35th anniversary, though, I suppose it's nice to be having a conversation like this, which is forward thinking, as opposed to once again just regaling old tales?

ARMSTRONG: It certainly is. It's nice to be looking forward.

O'BRIEN: Michael Collins, as long as we're mentioning regaling old tales, this time 35 years ago, you were alone in that command module. What are your recollections today? What memories come to the fore? And what are your thoughts about the accomplishments 35 years later?

COLLINS: Well, I was very happy in the command module by myself. I was sort of glad to get these guys out of my hair for a few hours, a day or two.

No, I think the -- in my memory, it's that things went as well as they did go on that particular flight and on Apollo flights in general. There were just so many things that could go wrong -- small things that could balloon into large tragedies, and we were very fortunate that none of those things overtook us and that did surprise me.

O'BRIEN: And up to and including the things that didn't go wrong was when you pushed that button and the lunar module ascended from the surface of the moon. No redundancy there, just one motor, one firing -- you could have very well been stuck there. Did you ever think about that?

ALDRIN: Well, I think we all learned to fly in single-engine airplanes, engines that can fail. Maybe that hadn't had as much attention as some of the things that were put together in Apollo.

I think we had a system of faith in what had been put together by so many people. And I think that as we look into the future, we should project ourselves 20, 30 years ahead, and will those people in the future be proud of the decisions that we now carry out, given this vision that we have been given, this particular year, 35 years after we first reached the moon?

I think it's a great responsibility that the American people have, that our leaders have, to try and fulfill a commitment to the future, that will make people 20, 30 years from now proud of the decisions that we have made.

O'BRIEN: Neil Armstrong, 35 years ago at this moment, can you remember what your biggest concern was? Did you have a sense that you had accomplished the hardest task, having manually landed that lunar module, avoiding boulders along the way?

ARMSTRONG: Well, I think we tried very hard not to be overconfident, because when you get overconfident, that's when something snaps up and bites you. We were ever alert for little difficulties that might crop up and be able to handle those. And in the subsequent flights they had their difficulties as well. But they were always able to surmount those problems. And it says a lot for the people that we worked with and who prepared us to go there.

O'BRIEN: And in hindsight, as you look back -- you mention today all the things that could have gone wrong but didn't -- are you in a sense almost more impressed by what not just you, but the whole operation collectively, did during that amazing span of time?

ARMSTRONG: Well, it was a remarkable time. We had hundreds of thousands of people all dedicated to doing the perfect job, and I think they did about as well as anyone could ever have expected.

O'BRIEN: Michael Collins, would you go along with that?

COLLINS: I judge organizations by their parking lots, and at NASA in those days, the parking lot was full early in the morning, the parking lot was full late in the evening. People were very dedicated. They were competent. They did their jobs wonderfully well.

O'BRIEN: The crew of Apollo 11 -- Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin -- a great pleasure having the opportunity to interview you together. And congratulations on the anniversary. We look forward to new adventures in space, which I'm sure you'll be cheering on.

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