Former astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin wasn't thinking about flying to the moon Saturday.
Speaking at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, Aldrin called for a national commitment to land astronauts on Mars, and eventually, the creation of a permanent colony on the red planet. An aggressive space initiative should be in place by 2019, the 50th anniversary of the first successful moon launch, he said.
President Barack Obama, Aldrin said, would "gain everlasting heritage -- reputation -- by having made that commitment."
Aldrin, 83, spoke to a crowd of 300, followed by a book signing for several hundred more. Aldrin's "Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration," was released this month.
The United States does have a goal of sending astronauts to orbit Mars, where several rovers have been landed, about 20 years from now, but no actual plan is in place. According to the president's "National Space Policy," NASA shall "by the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth."
Andrew Parton, the museum's executive director, said, "Mars is the next destination, and most people feel the reason the space program has floundered -- the moon gave us a destination," Parton said.
During the talk, Aldrin recalled being the second man to walk on the moon in 1969. "I use the word 'magnificent desolation' to describe my arrival at the moon," he said. "To see that large object up in the sky and then go walk on it."
But, he went on, "That pales in significance to the fact that we're going to send humanity to another planet in the solar system."
The museum hopes chatter about Mars helps boost interest in space exploration among younger generations.
Kevin and Eileen Cooke of North Merrick brought their son, Keaton, 6, who gave Aldrin a replica space shuttle he made of plaster. The parents had been reading him the H.G. Wells novel "The War of the Worlds," about an invasion from Mars. "Buzz had said something about going to Mars," his mother said, "and he was intrigued."