Millions flock to the Air and Space Museum every year to see the icons of a forgotten age [AFP]

The grainy footage still makes me gasp with astonishment.
 
The famous black-and-white images of a spindly lunar module setting down on the Moon on July 20th, 1969, represent the improbable trajectory from dream to the reality that was Apollo 11.
 
It leaves one wondering, even today: How did humans travel so far, in so frail a ship, through such a still, stark void?
 
An estimated 600 million people watched the live television broadcast of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon that day.

They huddled around flickering TV sets in living rooms and public squares, in offices and schoolrooms. 
 

IN DEPTH

  When man achieved the impossible...
  Riz Khan on the merits of space exploration
  Do you remember the moon landing?

I was 12 in 1969, but the memory is vivid.

I remember being allowed to stay up late for the occasion, and the cheering and excitement.

For a kid, it was a marvel to think that "we" - humanity, not just America - had achieved the seemingly impossible.
 
Today, the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington is a kind of secular shrine to the space race.

It's the busiest museum in the world, with nine million visitors a year.
 
Museum Curator Dr Roger Launius showed me around one day recently.

We stopped to talk in front of a model of the lunar lander - an ungainly-looking thing covered with Mylar foil and seemingly held together with gaffer's tape.

'Unifying' experience
 
Launius says the Moon landing was a unifying experience for a world beset by Vietnam and deep Cold War tensions.

"When the astronauts turned their cameras back on Earth, we began to see the Earth in an entirely different way. It changed our perspective"

Dr Roger Launius, curator of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

"It became kind of a human achievement," Launius says.

"We all kind of dropped our pitchforks and said, these are our fellow human beings that are setting foot on this place and this is a celebration for all of us."
 
It certainly didn't start out that way.

The Apollo programme was probably the supreme technological achievement of the 20th century, but it was also a major Cold War political effort aimed at beating the Soviet Union in space, planting the American flag on the Moon and scoring political points on earth.
 
The US had been shocked by Soviet space accomplishments, beginning with Sputnik in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin's first human space flight in 1961.

Reeling from the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba that year, President John F Kennedy sought to change the subject and restore American scientific prestige.

He pledged the US would land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.  
 
"We did it for the geopolitical rivalry with the Soviets," Launius says.
 
The price tag: about $145 billion in today's money.

A new perspective
 
But while the Apollo programme was conceived as an enormously expensive way to demonstrate to the Soviets and the rest of the world that the US was second to none, the trip to the Moon wound up underscoring the interconnectedness of life on Earth.
 

Reaching the moon cost the US about $145bn in today's currency [AFP]

"It came as a surprise to a lot of people, a pleasant surprise," Launius says, "because when the astronauts turned their cameras back on Earth, we began to see the Earth in an entirely different way.

"It changed our perspective."
 
In contrast to the barren lunar surface and the emptiness of space came indelible images of a small and fragile planet: our only home.

Those pictures provided a powerful boost to the newly-emerging environmental movement. 
 
"We are ourselves riding on a tiny spaceship," Launius says.

"And everything that we know, that we love, exists on that little, tiny marble. It's a spaceship and we better take care of it because it's fragile.

"That perspective is worth all the money, twice the money - three times the money - we ever spent on Apollo."
 
But Apollo 11, for all its accomplishments, turned out to be something of a dead end.

The public gradually lost interest, funding for space exploration was cut, and the last Moon mission ended in 1972.
 
NASA officials have sheepishly disclosed that the original high definition recordings of the first Moon walk were erased and recorded over in the 1970s.

NASA says the tapes were re-used as a cost saving measure following budget cuts.

Race renewed
 
But a new surge of interest in space exploration is building.

China was an impoverished country wracked by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution back in the 1960's, but now it is an economic and geopolitical player with an active space programme.

Chinese officials and scientists have spoken of a Moon landing by 2020.
 
The US is also planning to revisit what Aldrin called the Moon's "magnificent desolation".
 
I traveled to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, and visited the enormous, 40-story Vehicle Assembly Building where the Apollo rockets were put together before beginning their epic journey. 

Now, 40 years later, in that very same building, a new generation of rockets is being developed capable of returning to the Moon.

A new generation may once again see man return to the Moon [AFP]

The new Ares rocket will be the most powerful ever built.

Trent Smith is one of the enthusiastic young NASA scientists at work on the Constellation programme. 
 
"The whole goal is to get to the Moon and get us to Mars," Smith told me.

"The idea is to kind of build a Moon base and develop technologies on the Moon that will allow us to go to Mars and live there." 
 
That ambition will take many years and many billions of dollars to fulfill, but as Apollo showed, if can be done.

Today's computer technology is thousands of times more powerful that what the astronauts made do with 40 years ago.
 
I also visited NASA’s old control room in Houston, Texas.
 
Standing in that space, so familiar to viewers of the Moon landing and recreated in Hollywood films like "Apollo 13", I was struck by how relatively simple and basic the technology of the era was.

The control consoles were bulky metal cabinets festooned with lighted buttons and rotary-dial phones.

A system of vacuum tubes allowed technicians to shoot messages written on scraps of paper to other rooms in the huge NASA complex.

Below the control room, an entire level was devoted to a large IBM "data accumulator".

The total computing power of the old machines used to plot the trip to the Moon and back was about 500 kilobytes - far less than that of a 21st century digital watch or cell phone.
 
Smith, who wasn't born when Apollo 11 flew, says he remains in awe of his predecessors.

"What those guys went and did - absolutely incredible," he told me.

"And for us to go and do it again, and this to be the first step to do it — what a magnificent moment."
 
And so perhaps, decades from now, another generation of Earthlings may stop, and look skyward, and wonder at the audacity of dreams becoming reality.

Source: Al Jazeera