Apollo 11 Astronauts: A Global Approach Should Drive Future Space Exploration

Astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin gathered with space experts at GW to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

July 22, 2019

Michael Collins

Astronaut Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 command module pilot, said he could see "the world in his window" while orbiting the moon. (Harrison Jones/ GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

When Michael Collins and his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts toured the world after landing on the moon 50 years ago this week, he was struck by how excited citizens of other countries were about the achievement. The United States successfully put men on the moon, but more importantly, it was a milestone for all of humanity.

Mr. Collins reflected on that sense of togetherness at Lisner Auditorium on Thursday while participating in an event marking the anniversary of Apollo 11. The event, “One Giant Leap: Space Diplomacy Past, Present, Future” was co-sponsored by the Elliott School of International Affairs and its Space Policy Institute in partnership with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. State Department.

As the command module pilot, Mr. Collins stayed in orbit around the moon while astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left the module to become the first crew to land on the moon’s surface. Mr. Collins remembers looking at the Earth from the module and remarking on how fragile it seemed. It also put the geopolitical obstacles on Earth into perspective— from more than 200,000 miles away, you can’t tell where the borders are.

Moving forward, Mr. Collins said, the United States should “bend over backwards” to have a unified, worldwide approach to space exploration.

“It might slow us down a little bit in some cases, but I’m not sure speed is the paramount goal in mind,” he said. “I think getting the job done, getting it done by all inhabitants that are able, inhabitants of the globe, is more important.”

Buzz Aldrin

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (left) speaks with John Logsdon, professor emeritus, about the future of space exploration during an event marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. (Harrison Jones/ GW Today)

Mr. Aldrin, who made a surprise appearance to conclude the event, agreed. The United States has launched numerous space initiatives over the past half century, but their promises have often gone unfulfilled. Mr. Armstrong famously told the world the moon landing was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, but Mr. Aldrin said, “I think a number of us are still waiting for that giant leap.”

Relatives of Mr. Armstrong, who died in 2012, also attended the event. The GW event was the only time during the Apollo 11 anniversary celebration that Mr. Collins and Mr. Aldrin, the two surviving members of the Apollo 11 crew, appeared on the same public program.

It also featured a discussion between Mr. Collins, who also is a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs; Ellen Stofan, John and Adrienne Mars director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum; and Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, U.S. science envoy for space and former NASA administrator and space shuttle commander. The discussion was moderated by John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the Elliott School and founder of the GW Space Policy Institute.

During the discussion, Mr. Bolden called NASA the country’s “greatest soft power tool” because of the agency’s ability to attract the interest of people around the world. Dr. Stofan agreed and highlighted the important role the United States plays in promoting solutions to world problems.

“Space is something that provides international inspiration,” she said. “When I look out and think about the struggles we face as a global community like climate change, to me, space is an inspiration to the next generation of innovators and explorers that crosses boundaries.”

George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc lauded the Space Policy Institute's significant contributions to the space field since it was founded in 1987. The institute’s interdisciplinary students and faculty are internationally known and respected for their expertise in space policy, history, law and economics. The institute’s experts routinely consult with industry, international organizations and the federal government.

“We value these partnerships and the contributions we can make together— understanding our history, providing research and expertise on current developments and continuing to prepare future leaders who can help advance our efforts in space well into the future,” Dr. LeBlanc said.

Apollo 11

GW President Thomas LeBlanc recognized the GW Space Policy Institute's contributions to the space field during an event marking the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. (Harrison Jones/ GW Today)