Even at the time, we understood that our world had changed and that we could pinpoint this change to almost the second. We didn’t have to wait for Neil Armstrong to get out of the lunar module and fumble a portentous remark about a small step for a man. When we heard the words “Houston, Tranquillity Base here, the Eagle has landed,” it didn’t quite sink in, but then after a short, eerie pause the man at Houston, known only as Capcom, choked a bit and stumbled and then said: “We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again.”
That was the moment a 100 million people around the world also started breathing again.
Apollo was momentous in a way that Yuri Gagarin’s first, heroic orbit could never have been. Gagarin had circled the Earth in 92 minutes in 1961. He had travelled 38,600km in an hour--and-a-half; he had made history; he had confirmed Soviet space supremacy; he had done a thing that many thought could never be done. But two things separated him from the Apollo team eight years later.
One was that Gagarin had done all these things before anyone in the world knew about them, or could have known about them. We cheered his triumph, but missed the drama. The other was that he never really left the Earth; he flew higher than anybody had ever done, but he was still a prisoner of the planet’s tug. He was never much further from Earth than Manchester is from London.
Everything about the Apollo landing, though, was high adventure. It was the climax of a space race that had been so tightly contested that, right up to that moment on the Sea of Tranquillity, it had seemed possible that the Russians might get there first. This race had developed, although we could not know the details at the time, from a duel of wits between two men.
One was Wernher von Braun, the former German Waffen-SS officer who had devised, built, tested and deployed what, in 1944, had been the ultimate weapon: the Vergeltungswaffe-2, the vengeance weapon, the V2 . He pioneered the US technocracy. His Soviet opponent was a figure so shadowy that even in the USSR he was known only as “the Chief Designer.” In fact, Sergei Kolorev was an even more remarkable man who had lost his teeth, his health and very nearly his life in Stalin’s prison camps, but most of us knew nothing about him, not even his name, until 1990.
The decision to finance a moon race was a dramatic maneuver in Cold War politics, the ultimate in one-upmanship, a seizure of the commanding heights of space, begun by former US president John F. Kennedy as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s boastful Nikita Khrushchev.
But the sprint for the moon also united an implacably divided world. It gave us our first sense of the loneliness and the beauty of our planet, seen from a distance of 400,000km. And it was the first direct step in the search for extraterrestrial life. We forget this now, but in 1969, the fear of global infection by alien lunar organisms seemed real enough to ensure that the three astronauts went straight into biological isolation when they came home.
Above all, it was a moment of human drama, played out with fragile, gleaming technology against a backcloth of infinity. Like a billion other people, I listened, on an old junkshop radio with an improvised antenna, in the small parlour of a two-up, two-down railwayman’s cottage in Kent, southeast of London, while my wife, son and daughter slept overhead. I wasn’t, at the time, a science reporter, but I had joined a newspaper at 16 in 1957, just in time for Sputnik 1 and, like millions of others, I had followed every step of the drama that, on the night of 20 July 1969, reached its highest point.