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Obama Pledges Backing for U.S. Space Program

President Barack Obama hailed the astronauts who 40 years ago landed on the moon for the first time and pledged to keep the U.S. space program alive for future generations of Americans.

"U.S. President Barack Obama stands alongside the first man on the moon Neil Armstrong (2nd R), and fellow Apollo 11 crewmembers Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (L) and Michael Collins in the Oval Office"

The Apollo program, which on July 20, 1969 saw U.S. astronauts step onto the lunar surface for the first time in history, was "an example of how Americans can do anything they put their minds to," Obama told Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins at the White House.

He praised the trio who landed on the moon 40 years ago, and others who took part in Apollo missions, for inspiring an entire generation of U.S. scientists and engineers, and vowed to support the U.S. space agency, NASA, so that future generations of Americans might follow in their footsteps.

"There is another generation of kids out there that is looking up at the sky and they'll be the next Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin," Obama said.

"We want to be sure that NASA will be there for them when they want to take their journey."

"Illustrated explanation of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. As the world marked the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing, astronauts urged Americans to take inspiration from the Apollo program and go back to the moon and on to Mars."

The U.S. Apollo program fired the public's imagination throughout the 1960s after president John F. Kennedy set the United States on a race against its Cold War arch rival, the Soviet Union, to be the first country to put men on the moon.

An estimated 500 million people crowded around televisions and radios to watch and listen as Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 lunar lander onto the moon's Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969 to declare: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

But soon after, as the United States became mired in the war in Vietnam, public interest in and government funding for the Apollo program waned.

Only a dozen men, all American, walked on the moon between Apollo 11 in July 1969 and Apollo 17, in December 1972, when the program was shelved to make way for the space shuttle -- seen as a cheap, reliable and reusable mode of going into space.

"NASA handout of US astronaut Edwin E. 'Buzz' Aldrin Jr standing on the moon on July 20, 1969. President Barack Obama hailed the astronauts who 40 years ago landed on the moon for the first time and pledged to keep the US space program alive for future generations of Americans"

After massive budget overruns and a patchy safety record, the shuttle, which was used chiefly to ferry parts into space to build the International Space Station, is due to be taken off the launchpad once and for all as of next year.

The Constellation program, which is supposed to replace it won't be ready for spaceflight until 2015 and has been plagued by its own set of problems, including spiraling costs in a time of economic hardship, which have dented the project's popularity in the eyes of the US public.

Obama in May ordered a review of the problem-plagued, budget-busting rocket, and a panel of experts headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine is due to issue recommendations in late August.

But on Monday, as the world marked the 40th anniversary of the first moonwalk, Apollo veterans urged Americans to look beyond NASA's problems and not just shoot for the moon again but to aim beyond it and set their sights on Mars.

"The United States marked monday the 40th anniversary of the historic first moon walk Monday, with Apollo missions Astronauts issuing a clarion call for Americans to set their sights on Mars and President Barack Obama meeting at the White House with the crew of the Apollo 11 mission. Duration 1:47"

"We need to go back to the moon," Eugene Cernan, the Apollo 17 astronaut who was the last man to walk on the lunar surface in 1972, told a news conference held with half a dozen other Apollo astronauts.

"We need to learn a bit more about what we think we know already, we need to establish bases, put new telescopes on the moon, get prepared to go to Mars. Because the ultimate goal is to go to Mars," Cernan said.

Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, called for a bold resumption of the US space exploration program, with Mars as the goal.

"There may be life on Mars and if there is, it's damn sure we ought to go there and look at it," he said, calling for Americans to revive their pioneering spirit.