Apollo 11 astronaut returns to launch pad 50 years later

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins returned Tuesday to the exact spot where he flew to the moon 50 years ago with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Collins had the spotlight to himself this time — Armstrong has been gone for seven years and Aldrin canceled. Collins said he wished his two moonwalking colleagues could have shared the moment at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A, the departure point for humanity's first moon landing.

"Wonderful feeling to be back," the 88-year-old command module pilot said on NASA TV. "There's a difference this time. I want to turn and ask Neil a question and maybe tell Buzz Aldrin something, and of course, I'm here by myself."

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Apollo 11 Moon Landing
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Apollo 11 Moon Landing
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: US Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, walking on the Moon July 20 1969. Taken during the first Lunar landing of the Apollo 11 space mission by NASA. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Photograph of Astronaut Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 space mission. Dated 1969. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY: The crew of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, the astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin are in quarantine after their return from the moon in the United States in Luly 1969. (Photo by Frederic CASTEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 21: Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, was launched on 16th July 1969 and Neil Armstrong and Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the Moon on 20th July 1969. The third member of the crew, Command Module pilot Michael Collins, remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface. Aldrin was the Lunar Module pilot on the mission. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
376713 11: (FILE PHOTO) A view of the Earth appears over the Lunar horizon as the Apollo 11 Command Module comes into view of the Moon before Astronatus Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. leave in the Lunar Module, Eagle, to become the first men to walk on the Moon's surface. The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon mission is celebrated July 20, 1999. (Photo by NASA/Newsmakers)
UNITED STATES - MAY 30: Aldrin is shown beside the foot of the Lunar Module. Apollo 11, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong - Commander, Michael Collins - Command Module pilot and Edwin Aldrin - Lunar Module pilot, was the first manned lunar landing mission. It was launched on 16th July 1969 and Armstrong and Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the moon on 20th July 1969. Collins remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface. The astronauts returned to Earth on 24th July 1969. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
IN SPACE - JULY 11: The American Flag Is Planted On The Lunar Surface By The Men Of Apollo 11 In July 1969. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 08: Aldrin is shown deploying the Passive Seismic Experiments Package (PSEP) on the lunar surface. The PSEP was one of the experiments that were carried out during the lunar landing missions. Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, was launched on 16th July 1969 with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin �Buzz� Aldrin and Michael Collins on board, and Armstrong and Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the Moon on 20th July 1969. Collins, the Command Module pilot, remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 17: Aldrin became the second man to walk on the Moon after he stepped off this ladder on 20th July 1969. The picture was taken by Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon. The third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins, remained in lunar orbit in the Apollo Command and Service Module while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
The Apollo Lunar Module known as the Eagle descends onto the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, 20th July 1969. This is a composite image comprised of two separate shots. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A television screen grab shows the members of mission control waving flags and celebrating the splashdown and return of the crew of the Apollo 11, Texas, July 1969. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Apollo 11 Splashdown - Hushed crowd watches on mobile TV setup at 53d St. and Park Ave., as moon men return. (Photo By: Jack Smith/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 17: The Apollo 11 rocket is on its mobile launch platform just after roll out from the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its way to Launch Complex 39A. Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, was launched on 16th July 1969 with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin �Buzz� Aldrin and Michael Collins on board, and Armstrong and Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the Moon on 20th July 1969. Collins, the Command Module pilot, remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 15: The Apollo 11 launch vehicle is on its mobile launch platform just after roll out from the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its way to Launch Complex 39A. Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, was launched on 16th July 1969 with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin �Buzz� Aldrin and Michael Collins on board, and Armstrong and Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the Moon on 20th July 1969. Collins, the Command Module pilot, remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface. The massive Saturn V rocket, over 100 metres tall, was the largest rocket ever built and was used on all the Apollo missions to the Moon. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 08: Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin �Buzz� Aldrin standing by a boiler plate Apollo capsule on the deck of the NASA vessel Retriever during water egress training in the Gulf of Mexico. Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, was launched on 16th July 1969 and Neil Armstrong and Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the Moon on 20th July 1969. Command Module pilot Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface. The astronauts returned to Earth on 24th July 1969. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - JULY 24: US Navy pararescueman Lt. Clancey Hatleberg disinfects Apollo 11 Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. after getting into the life raft during recovery operations on July 24, 1969 at the completion of their successful lunar landing mission. (Photo by 8383/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 14: This picture was taken by the Apollo 11 astronauts on their journey to the moon. Spain, North Africa and the Middle East can clearly be seen. Apollo 11, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin �Buzz� Aldrin and Michael Collins, was the first manned lunar landing mission. It was launched on 16th July 1969 and Armstrong and Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the moon on 21st July 1969. Collins remained in lunar orbit. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 29: This view of the Earth appearing above the lunar horizon was taken by astronauts during the Apollo 11 mission. Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, was launched on 16th July 1969 with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin �Buzz� Aldrin and Michael Collins on board, and Armstrong and Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the Moon on 20th July 1969. Collins, the Command Module pilot, remained in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface. The astronauts returned safely to Earth on 24th July 1969. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
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At NASA's invitation, Collins marked the precise moment — 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969 — that the Saturn V rocket blasted off. He was seated at the base of the pad alongside Kennedy's director, Robert Cabana, a former space shuttle commander.

Collins recalled the tension surrounding the crew that day.

"Apollo 11 ... was serious business. We, crew, felt the weight of the world on our shoulders. We knew that everyone would be looking at us, friend or foe, and we wanted to do the best we possibly could," he said.

Collins remained in lunar orbit, tending to Columbia, the mother ship, while Armstrong and Aldrin landed in the Eagle on July 20, 1969, and spent 2 ½ hours walking the gray, dusty lunar surface.

A reunion Tuesday at the Kennedy firing room by past and present launch controllers — and Collins' return to the pad, now leased to SpaceX — kicked off a week of celebrations marking each day of Apollo 11's eight-day voyage.

At the Air and Space Museum in Washington, the spacesuit that Armstrong wore went back on display in mint condition, complete with lunar dust left on the suit's knees, thighs and elbows. On hand for the unveiling were Vice President Mike Pence, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Armstrong's older son, Rick. Armstrong died in 2012.

A fundraising campaign took just five days to raise the $500,000 needed for the restoration.

Calling Armstrong a hero, Pence said "the American people express their gratitude by preserving this symbol of courage."

In Huntsville, Alabama, where the Saturn V was developed, thousands of model rockets were launched simultaneously, commemorating the moment the Apollo 11 crew blasted off for the moon. Hundreds of youngsters attending Space Camp counted down ... "5, 4, 3, 2, 1!" — and cheered as the rockets created a gray cloud, at least for a few moments, in the sky.

Back at Kennedy, NASA televised original launch video of Apollo 11, timed down to the second. Then Cabana turned the conversation to NASA's next moonshot program, Artemis, named after the twin sister of Greek mythology's Apollo. It seeks to put the first woman and next man on the lunar surface — the moon's south pole — by 2024. President John F. Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of 1969 took eight years to achieve.

Collins said he likes the name Artemis and, even more, likes the concept behind Artemis.

"But I don't want to go back to the moon," Collins told Cabana. "I want to go direct to Mars. I call it the JFK Mars Express."

Collins noted that the moon-first crowd has merit to its argument and he pointed out Armstrong himself was among those who believed returning to the moon "would assist us mightily in our attempt to go to Mars."

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NASA launches Parker Solar Probe to 'touch the sun'
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NASA launches Parker Solar Probe to 'touch the sun'
CAPE CANAVERAL - AUGUST 8: In this NASA handout, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket payload fairing is seen with the NASA and Parker Solar Probe emblems, August 8, 2018 at Launch Complex 37, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Parker Solar Probe will travel through the Suns atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL - AUGUST 10: In this NASA handout, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen, left, American solar astrophysicist, and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, Eugene Parker, center, and President and Chief Executive Officer for United Launch Alliance Tony Bruno pose for a group photo in front of the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA's Parker Solar onboard, at Launch Complex 37 of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 10, 2018 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This is the first NASA mission that has been named for a living individual. Parker Solar Probe is humanity's first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 10: In this handout provided by NASA, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen, left, American solar astrophysicist, and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, Eugene Parker, center, and President and Chief Executive Officer for United Launch Alliance Tory Bruno pose for a group photo in front of the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA's Parker Solar on-board, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. This is the first NASA mission that has been named for a living individual. Parker Solar Probe is humanity's first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket poised on Space Launch Complex-37 on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, that will carry NASA's Parker Solar Probe to an interplanetary trajectory to the sun. The launch is scheduled for Saturday morning. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 10: This long exposure photograph shows the Mobile Service Tower being rolled back to reveal the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 10: In this handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard is seen shortly after the Mobile Service Tower was rolled back, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 10: In this handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard is seen shortly after the Mobile Service Tower was rolled back, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 11: In this handout provided by NASA, The Mobile Service Tower is rolled back to reveal the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 10: In this handout provided by NASA, the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe is illuminated ahead of launch, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 10: In this handout provided by NASA, The Mobile Service Tower is rolled back to reveal the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 10: In this handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard is seen shortly after the Mobile Service Tower was rolled back, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 11: In this handout provided by NASA, The Mobile Service Tower is rolled back to reveal the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 11: In this handout provided by NASA, The Mobile Service Tower is rolled back to reveal the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA - AUGUST 12: In this handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 12, 2018 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanity's first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. The probe will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - AUGUST 11: In this handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard, is reflected in water on the launch pad, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanitys first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA - AUGUST 12: In this handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 12, 2018 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanity's first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. The probe will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA - AUGUST 12: In this handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 12, 2018 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanity's first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. The probe will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA - AUGUST 12: In this handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is seen in this long exposure photograph as it launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 12, 2018 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanity's first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. The probe will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA - AUGUST 12: In this handout provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 12, 2018 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanity's first-ever mission into a part of the Suns atmosphere called the corona. The probe will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
NASA's Parker Solar Probe launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Brown
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Cabana assured Collins, "We believe the faster we get to the moon, the faster we get to Mars as we develop those systems that we need to make that happen."

About 100 of the original 500 launch controllers and managers on July 16, 1969, reunited in the firing room Tuesday morning. The crowd also included members of NASA's next moon management team, including Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, launch director for the still-in-development Space Launch System moon rocket. The SLS will surpass the Saturn V, the world's most powerful rocket to fly to date.

Blackwell-Thompson said she got goosebumps listening to the replay of the Apollo 11 countdown. Hearing Collins' "personal account of what that was like was absolutely amazing."

The lone female launch controller for Apollo 11, JoAnn Morgan, enjoyed seeing the much updated- firing room. One thing was notably missing, though: stacks of paper. "We could have walked to the moon on the paper," Morgan said.

Collins was going to be reunited later in the day with two other Apollo astronauts at an evening gala at Kennedy, including Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke, who was the capsule communicator in Mission Control for the Apollo 11 moon landing. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville also had a special anniversary dinner on tap Tuesday night, with Aldrin and other retired Apollo astronauts and rocket scientists.

Only four of the 12 moonwalkers from 1969 through 1972 are still alive: Aldrin, Duke, Apollo 15's David Scott and Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt.

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said Aldrin, 89, bowed out of the launch pad visit, citing his intense schedule of appearances. Aldrin hosted a gala in Southern California last Saturday and planned to head directly to the Huntsville dinner. Aldrin and Collins may reunite in Washington on Friday or Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's moon landing.

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Science writer Seth Borenstein contributed from Washington.

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Follow AP's full coverage of the Apollo 11 anniversary at: https://apnews.com/Apollo11moonlanding

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