WASHINGTON — The same question that could have been asked 40 years ago moments after Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon is still being asked today: Now what?
On the 40th anniversary of man's first moon landing, the Apollo 11 crew met with President Barack Obama, who used the opportunity to talk about inspiration and science and math education. He didn't talk about going anywhere in space, not the moon or Mars.
Obama said he wanted to use Monday's 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."
That's not what the men who went to the moon had in mind.
Earlier in the day, seven Apollo astronauts, including Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, used a news conference to talk about their desire to go to Mars and not linger on the moon as long as NASA plans.
"All of us here are pretty much convinced that Mars is a goal to shoot for," said Tom Stafford, commander of Apollo 10, which orbited the moon and tested the lunar module.
On a day when everyone lauded NASA for landing on the moon and dreaming big, the space agency's overall plan for future exploration remained in a holding pattern. Again.
The Obama administration is waiting for a recommendation from an outside panel, which will examine a return-to-the-moon policy that started under President George W. Bush and compare that to other goals and different spaceship designs. With NASA's new boss Charles Bolden Jr. and its biggest stars – Armstrong, Aldrin and Apollo 11 crewmate Michael Collins – shaking Obama's hand in the Oval Office, it was an opportunity to chart a new course to somewhere.
That's not what happened.
The U.S. space program is full of goals attached to dates. John F. Kennedy wanted to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Five years ago, Bush said he wanted to land astronauts back on the moon by 2020. So with Armstrong standing next to him and nodding, Obama said those magic words: "Keep the goal by 2020."
But he wasn't finished. "Keep the goal by 2020 of having the highest college graduation rates of any country on Earth, especially in the math and science fields."
It was not about going somewhere old or new. It wasn't about NASA. It was about education.
The Obama administration isn't quite ready to make long-term commitments to space exploration, said John Logsdon, former George Washington University space policy director.
Human exploration is NASA's shining past, but some of the agency's best recent work has been done without humans, such as robots on Mars, space telescopes and Earth-observing satellites, said Smithsonian space curator Roger Launius. He said "it's become painfully obvious" that NASA's robots "are kind of the new sexy thing."
Obama emphasized the humanity part of Apollo 11, though, saying the three-man crew "at great risk oftentimes and with great danger, was somehow able to lift our sights, not just here in the United States but around the world."
The president said he 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."
For his part Obama said he wanted to make sure that when another generation looks to the sky, NASA "is going to be there for them when they want to take their journey."
But he didn't say where that journey should go. And that's the bit of a shadow on NASA's day in the sun.
Less than an hour later at the White House, another star of the 1960s wandered about. It was the actress June Lockhart, who regularly visits the White House since receiving a press pass decades ago. Her television show? "Lost In Space."