On July 20, the United States will observe the 25th anniversary of that costly, sometimes controversial and genuinely astonishing accomplishment, the first landing of men on the moon in Apollo 11.

It was the denouement of an international drama between the two Cold War superpowers that eschewed firing missiles at each other but were launching spacecraft toward the moon and beyond to strut their stuff on an international stage.

The drama began in 1957. On an October evening in Washington, Russian and American scientists were attending a party at the Soviet Embassy when news reports from Moscow announced that the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite to orbit of the Earth.

Vodka flowed with the news of the satellite, named Sputnik, and the Americans extended their congratulations. But as time passed it became apparent that many other Americans were not in a congratulatory mood. Rather, they asked: How could "they" have beaten "us" at our own game -- technology.

The space race was under way.

The United States' post-Sputnik self-deprecation became almost frantic. Instant experts blamed schools for not emphasizing science and math. Others charged that materialism somehow had to do with the nation's fall from leadership.

"No event since Pearl Harbor set off such repercussions in public life," wrote Walter A. McDougall in ". . . the Heavens and the Earth -- A Political History of the Space Age" (Basic Books Inc.), which won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for history.

The impetus of Sputnik (Russian for traveling companion) was nowhere more intense than in the U.S. Congress, where success in space ventures became a consuming issue.

The lawmakers created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, consolidating some smaller government groups expert in rocketry and aeronautics.

Meanwhile, U.S. rocketry had gained self-respect by launching FTC its own satellite Jan. 31, 1958, but it seemed apparent to the citizenry that their country was still No. 2.

Then, the 1960 elections brought a new president to the White Housewho seemed more eager to best the Russians than his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been.

John F. Kennedy was soon asking his advisers: "Is there any place we can catch them? Can we put a man on the moon before them?"

Perhaps by the end of the decade, his advisers thought.

In May 1961, Kennedy announced to Congress that the nation would attempt to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of 1969.

The cost of the moon landing program in 1960s dollars was $25 billion, which translates to approximately $110 billion today.

The scientific and technological returns from the Apollo program and other space endeavors of that period were impressive and financially rewarding to the aerospace industry and research institutions.

Motel keepers in central Florida also prospered (an estimated 700,000 people lined the beaches and highways to watch the liftoff of Apollo 11). The boost to morale when the Vietnam War had split the nation grievously was substantial.

But was the prize worth the game?

"The moon race was a Cold War undertaking that should be evaluated primarily in foreign policy terms," John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, and Alain Dupas, a policy strategist for the French space agency, write in the June issue of Scientific American.

"On these grounds it was an important victory. The Apollo program undoubtedly aided America's global quest for political and military leadership. . . . The lunar landing constituted a persuasive demonstration of the national will and technological capability for the U.S.

"Likewise, the failure of the Soviet lunar program was more than a public relations defeat . . . and it tarnished the image of socialist competence and diminished Soviet standing in world affairs."

Scientifically, the Apollo program's exploration of the moon was of immense importance to geologists and those in the allied sciences. They confirmed that the age of the moon was approximately 4.5 billion years and that it apparently grew from an enormous object that hit the Earth eons ago and then went into an orbit around this planet.

In six trips to the moon, Apollo astronauts brought back more than 800 pounds of rocks, including basalts (born of molten material like lava) and compacted fragments of breccias, rocks formed from several kinds of material.

Their work enabled scientists to gather new information about the internal structure of the moon and to measure more precisely distances between the Earth and the moon.

The billions spent on space flight have also brought beneficial engineering and scientific "spinoffs." Among them:

* Biomedical instrumentation, enabling doctors at city hospitals to communicate with medical personnel helping people in remote areas.

* Fuel cell technology that uses oxygen and hydrogen to produce potable water and electricity.

* High-strength, anti-flammability fabrics used for spacesuits and backpacks. Kevlar is an example.

* Inertial guidance systems, essential to the navigation of spacecraft, which are now standard equipment in commercial aviation.

* Telemetry (measuring from afar) that is used on spacecraft for such tasks as tracking hurricanes.

The nation's space programs also have led to the establishment, with government assistance, of major scientific research projects leading universities in such fields as lunar and planetary studies, plasma physics (the reaction of materials at extremely high temperatures), the atmospheric sciences, and astronomy.

In a broader sense, the moon landings and unmanned flights to the planets turned the eyes of countless people in the direction ++ of the heavens as never before.

When, for instance, people saw on their television screens the Apollo astronauts -- people like themselves -- walking on another spherical body in the sky, their viewpoints probably changed forever. The moon became a real place, not just a romantic

decoration in the night.

But there are places at unimaginable distances, with secrets yet to be discovered, that can be sought at far less cost than #F spaceships equipped for human habitation.

In May, for example, scientists reported that the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope had found a real "black hole," an object 50 million light years away with such a powerful pull of gravity that not even light can escape its clutch.

Today, there remains a fundamental question that bedevils brilliant astronomers such as Allan Sandage, whose accomplishments in cosmology, the study of the universe, stem in part from his query: "What is man's place in the universe?"

This puzzle is examined philosophically at the conclusion of the space age history by Dr. McDougall, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

He asks: "Can the scientific knowledge or new perspectives gleaned from space exploration spawn a higher consciousness or wisdom and prepare a new, sublime culture?"

The author provides some possible answers and quotes the polar explorer Fridjof Nansen: "It is therefore to no purpose to discuss the uses of knowledge -- man wants to know, and when he ceases to do so he is no longer man."

More to the point, perhaps, is a comment from Albert Einstein, who once explained his abiding curiosity about the nature of all we behold in nine words: "I want to know how God made the world."

Albert Sehlstedt Jr. had covered more U.S. space flights than most reporters by the time he retired from The Sun in 1987. He reported on all of the Mercury flights, the succeeding Gemini missions, Apollo flights 7 to 16, the early shuttle flights and the 1986 Challenger explosion.

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