“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong said as he stepped off the ladder onto the Moon’s grey surface. It was, of course, one of the most celebrated verbal slips in history: he was meant to say “a man” instead of “man”.
But almost five decades on, it is the second part of the sentence that looks a bit questionable. Was the Moon landing really a great leap for mankind? And as we sit here, still stubbornly earthbound, surrounded by headlines about economic and environmental disaster, doesn’t it look more like a dead end?
These days, of course, it is easy to be cynical about the Moon landing. Armstrong’s words, like the images of the astronauts standing on the Moon, have become an indelible part of popular culture, their impact dulled by over-familiarity, the details of the event fodder for conspiracy nutters. Just as it is impossible to listen to the Beatles – that other symbol of Sixties optimism – as though hearing them for the first time, so it is hard for us to recapture the sheer wonder with which people first watched Armstrong and Aldrin step out on the Moon’s surface.
Rather depressingly, though, the Guinness Book of Records informs me that only 600 million people watched the landing live – roughly half the number worldwide that watched Baywatch at its peak, and, according to Auto Trader, half the global audience that tunes in to watch Top Gear.
For some reason, there is no better way of pouring cold water on Space Race enthusiasts than to tell them that more people across the world watch Jeremy Clarkson crashing cars than ever saw Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon.
But of course there are other, better reasons to be cynical about the Moon landing. As time has gone on, it has become increasingly clear that the Space Race was ultimately an offshoot of the Cold War, driven by ideological rivalry and national chauvinism as much as scientific curiosity and the love of adventure.
Even the original commitment to send American astronauts to the Moon, made by President Kennedy in 1961, needs to be seen against the background of Kennedy’s eagerness to appear strong and decisive in the Cold War. Curiously, therefore, the impetus behind the Apollo missions was almost exactly the same as that behind the American military build-up in Vietnam, which began at roughly the same time.
And since we know now that, in the short term at least, the Space Race never really led anywhere – in that we do not now take day-trips to Mars or visit aged aunts in the lunar colonies – it is worth asking whether it was really worth it. Quite apart from the costs in human lives, or the gigantic impact of so many rockets on the environment, the Apollo programme alone cost an estimated $100 billion, which would have paid for an awful lot of schools, hospitals or African aid projects.
To this, it seems to me, there are two obvious counter-arguments. The first is that while we cannot possibly know how future generations will judge the Moon landings, it is a reasonable assumption that at some point the exploration of space will resume in earnest, whether driven by national competition or by the pressure of overcrowding and environmental destruction.
This is to enter the realms of science fiction, admittedly. But it is plausible to imagine Armstrong and Aldrin being remembered as pioneers whose example was not followed until centuries later – the lunar equivalents not of Christopher Columbus, but of Leif Ericson.
And then there is the purely emotional argument. In some ways the Space Race reflected all that is worst in human nature: our obsession with national rivalries, our competitiveness, our fixation with technological modernity, our thirst to be first. And yet nobody with an ounce of sentiment or imagination can surely deny that it also reflected some of our best qualities: our ingenuity, our instinct for collaboration, our sheer ambition and enterprise.
Illustration by Jonty Clark for BBC History Magazine
Yes, the Moon landing was outrageously expensive, but it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the astronauts’ awestruck words as they contemplated the beauty of the Earth, or their joy as they skipped awkwardly around on the surface of the Moon. When all is said and done, and whatever the cynics say, it remains perhaps the outstanding moment in human history – and one worth celebrating today.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, author, columnist and television presenter.
This article was first published in the July 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine