The Apollo moon missions confirmed that humans have an almost infinite capacity for invention and achievement, writes Christine Jardine.
At some point this week, I shall probably just go outside and look at the moon. Not because of any lunar fascination or astronomical hobby.
But because it will be exactly 50 years since my dad and I looked at it in wonder at what human ingenuity had just achieved.
Looking back, I can’t actually remember if it was beautiful and clear or the night sky was thick with cloud. I just remember the feeling that it was special. That up there, an unimaginable distance away, on the surface of the moon, were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Fifty years ago tomorrow, 16 July, 1969, the launch of Apollo 11 from Cape Kennedy had seemed to me the start of an amazing adventure.
It was only years later that I appreciated that for many of my parents’ generation, it was the ultimate fulfilment of John F Kennedy’s promise to explore the stars and send a man safely to the moon and back by the end of the decade.
That generation had lived through World War II as children, endured the fear and tension of the Cuban missile crisis as young parents and the grief of lost opportunities with the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King.
But now they had this, ultimate achievement.
So I had been allowed to bring blankets down onto the sofa to share this historic event with my parents. This was a night that only the Queen’s coronation and possibly the 1966 World Cup final would ever match as a communal TV watching experience.
But this was also something more. This first, all night, live broadcast by both the BBC and ITV was something akin to witnessing Columbus arrive in the Americas. The world watched, waited and felt every second of the strain.
Half a century later, if I close my eyes I can still imagine that strange beep and crackly sound link through the final seconds of the descent as Armstrong searched for a safe place to land before he had too little fuel and would be forced to abort.
And then the spontaneous cheering and hugging with relief at the words that everyone instantly recognised would echo down through history. The Eagle had landed.
In my childish enthusiasm, I expected that the two men who had just travelled more than 200,000 miles and risked everything for science would just pop on their space suits and hop out into the night.
It was, of course, several hours and a snooze later, at 3.56am that Neil Armstrong emerged to take that giant leap for mankind.
It is almost impossible now to convey the excitement and expectation that it invoked. It seemed that the stars, space travel and the discovery of new worlds was at our fingertips.
In my childhood universe, it was all anyone talked about from that launch on 16 July until their safe return ten days later and much longer.
I was so captivated by the stars that, along with a friend from my primary school class, I set up an astronomy club. There were only two of us, but we took it very seriously.
Years later on a visit to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida with my husband and my then tiny daughter, I marvelled at the size of the Saturn 5 rockets that had propelled the Apollo missions and the contrast with the cramped conditions in which they had travelled.
My fascination with all things astronomical did not last into secondary school as the waning of my interest matched the decline in the public’s following of the space programme.
I couldn’t tell you now without checking how many space missions actually landed or which was the last Apollo (it was 17). And I had to look it up to discover that there have been eight successful Mars landings.
Of course, I remember the heightened tension of watching the safe return of Apollo 13 in a drama that even the world’s best movie makers couldn’t quite recapture.
And the images of the two Space Shuttles that were lost are seared on my brain.
But, looking back, the thing I feel most is a sense of loss. Going out to look at the moon that night, I was captivated by the idea that people had actually travelled to that tiny blot in the sky. If Nasa could do that what was next? Maybe by the end of the century people would be going to Mars? Space travel could be commonplace. New worlds would be conquered.
The world has moved on enough since then for us to dare to ask now whether Neil Armstrong’s “small step” onto the surface of the moon was as great a leap as we expected. What, if any, of the promise of that mission has been realised?
Just recently someone I know scoffed at the very suggestion that man had actually been to the moon.
“It was all staged,” she laughed. And she was serious. I felt sorry for her.
You see the answer to that question about the great leap is yes. It was.
Those missions ultimately brought CAT scans, water purification, memory foam, equipment used to cut victims out of vehicles, and so many other things.
But more importantly they gave us confirmation that humans have an almost infinite capacity for invention and achievement.
Our planet currently faces a challenge that will demand all the passion, experimental science and technological advance we can find to save it from the damage we have done.
Fifty years on, Neil Armstrong’s small step onto the moon should give us the belief that if we have the will, we can.