COCOA BEACH, Fla., July 16 (UPI) -- A new, bold challenge in space exploration is needed to advance American prosperity and unite humanity with a common goal, a group of Apollo-era legends said Tuesday on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's launch from Florida.
Speaking at a Cocoa Beach hotel a few miles south of Kennedy Space Center, the group praised the leadership of the Apollo era, particularly President John F. Kennedy.
The Apollo missions were characterized by "the sense that we ought to be going out there, that it wasn't just the United States -- it was universal," said Rusty Schweickart, who flew on the Apollo 9 mission, the first full flight of the entire Apollo spacecraft.
Schweickart was joined by astronauts Michael Collins, the command and service module pilot on Apollo 11 and Charlie Duke, who flew on Apollo 16 to the moon and served in a chief role at Mission Control in Houston during Apollo 11.
Also on the panel was Gerry Griffin, Apollo flight director and later director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
While they spoke diplomatically and carefully about plans by NASA to return to the moon, they generally supported the space agency's goal to eventually travel to Mars. Collins, though, has been outspoken in suggesting that NASA skip the moon and head to Mars.
"I say go to Mars JFK direct, express maybe," Collins said, referring to President Kennedy's mandate in 1961 to achieve a moon landing before the end of the decade.
"It seems to me that what's really required to do anything approximating what Apollo 11 did, you've got to have a big goal. It can't be an incremental step. It's got to be something that taps pretty deeply into the human psyche," Schweickart said.
Griffin said plainly that he believes NASA became too risk-averse, calling Apollo-era leaders bold and gutsy.
"Of course safety is important. It's a risky business, but don't be so risk averse that you don't fly," Griffin said. "That risk management is going to be extremely key. You have to pay attention to it, but you can't let it paralyze you. We need to get our mojo back."
Duke said only bold space endeavors unite the world in a feeling of accomplishment, noting that Apollo employed 400,000 people and stimulated technology to evolve related to computer software, spacesuits, communications and the understanding of micro-gravity.
"I think space exploration is the Christopher Columbus of the future," Duke said.
Even so, all four men indicated they did not necessarily grasp the enormity of what they were doing during missions. Duke said people were so focused on their work they didn't stop to think much about the distant future or their legacy.
Duke also focused on the commercialization of space, which he said holds great promise. He noted that during recent Apollo anniversary events, he met people holding tickets for a Virgin Galactic flight into space.
"When you get up there, don't unstrap -- just look out the window," he joked.
Schweickart said many mysteries await humanity far below low-Earth orbit, notably on the surface of Mars.
"The next big step is the whole issue of getting to Mars, but also when we get there, is there fossil evidence of life?" he said.
The panel, titled "Legends of Apollo" was sponsored by the (Buzz) Aldrin Family Foundation and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.