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Apollo 11 astronaut returns to launch pad 50 years later

376713 09: (FILE PHOTO) The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has named these three astronauts as the prime crew of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Left to right, are Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. (Photo by NASA/Newsmakers)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins returned Tuesday to the exact spot where he and two other astronauts flew to the moon 50 years ago.

At NASA’s invitation, Michael Collins spent the golden anniversary at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida. He marked the precise moment — 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969 — that their Saturn V rocket departed on humanity’s first moon landing. Buzz Aldrin was an unexplained no-show. Mission commander Neil Armstrong — who took the first lunar footsteps — died in 2012.

Collins said he wished Aldrin and Armstrong could have shared the moment at the pad.

It was “a wonderful feeling to be back,” the 88-year-old astronaut said in an interview on NASA TV. “There was a difference this time. I want to turn and ask Neil a question and maybe tell Buzz Aldrin something, and of course, I’m here by myself.”

The return kicked off a week of celebrations marking each day of Apollo 11’s eight-day voyage. Collins remained in orbit during the mission while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon.

At the Air and Space Museum in Washington, the spacesuit that Armstrong wore is back on display in mint condition. On hand for the unveiling were Vice President Mike Pence, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine and Armstrong’s son, Rick.

A fundraising campaign took just five days to raise the $500,000 needed for the restoration.

Calling Armstrong a hero, Pence said “the American people express their gratitude by preserving this symbol of courage.”

In Huntsville, Alabama, where the Saturn V was developed, thousands of model rockets were launched simultaneously, commemorating the moment the Apollo 11 crew blasted off for the moon.

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