The US today proudly marks the 40th anniversary of its conquest of the moon, a triumph of scientific endeavor now remembered at a time when US dominance in space is increasingly uncertain.
US President Barack Obama starts a week of events today when he meets at the White House with the crew of the Apollo 11 mission, who became the first to accomplish the dream of ages and walk on the surface of the moon.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” astronaut Neil Armstrong said as he stepped down from the lunar lander on July 20, 1969, as an estimated 500 million people on Earth crowded round televisions and radios.
Four decades ago, at the height of the Cold War, the US achievement was a huge morale booster to a country mired in the bloody Vietnam war, ushering in a new sense of confidence and challenging concepts of science and religion.
“Armstrong is on the moon — Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon, on this July 20, 19 hundred and 69,” US newscaster Walter Cronkite intoned.
“Whew, boy,” exclaimed Cronkite, who died last week aged 92. “There he is, there’s a foot coming down the steps. So there’s a foot on the moon.”
But dreams that one day we might all be able to travel to the stars have been rudely brought down to earth.
Only 12 men, all Americans, have ever walked on the moon, and the last to set foot there were in 1972, at the end of the Apollo missions.
Now ambitious plans to put US astronauts back on the moon by 2020 to establish manned lunar bases for further space exploration to Mars under the Constellation project are increasingly in doubt.
And other nations such as Russia, China and even India and Japan are increasingly honing and expanding their own space programs.
“I think we are at an extremely critical juncture as we celebrate this anniversary, because we at least in the US are in the process of deciding ... what is the future of humans in space,” said John Logsdon, an expert in aerospace history at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
“And without government funding nothing happens,” he said.
The cost of the Constellation project is put at about US$150 billion, but estimates for the Ares I launcher to put the project into orbit have skyrocketed from US$26 billion in 2006 to US$44 billion last year.
The mounting costs prompted Obama, soon after he took office, to order a close examination of the program. A blue-ribbon panel of experts headed by former Lockheed Martin chief executive officer Norman Augustine is due to issue recommendations in late August.
“With a few exceptions, we have the technology or the knowledge that we could go to Mars if we wanted with humans,” Augustine said recently.
“We could put a telescope on the moon if we wanted,” he said.
“The technology is by and large there. It boils down to what can we afford?” he said.
Currently NASA’s budget is too small to pay for Constellation’s Orion capsule, a more advanced and spacious version of the Apollo lunar module, as well as the Ares I and Ares V launchers needed to put the craft in orbit.
With a space exploration budget of US$6 billion this year, US Senator Bill Nelson, a former astronaut, said: “NASA simply can’t do the job it’s been given.”
Democratic Representative Barney Frank, who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is one of the budget skeptics.