Where were you 25 years ago today, when men walked on the moon for the first time?
Most people remember distinctly what they were doing when that momentous event occurred. A series of Apollo moon missions culminated on July 16, 1969, with astronaut Neil Armstrong opening the hatch of the lunar lander Eagle and clambering down a ladder to set foot on lunar soil with the historic words, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
The Apollo landings were a technological and scientific tour de force and the centerpiece of NASA's $25 billion manned space program of the 1960s. They were also a geopolitical trump card in the ideological competition between East and West and an immense propaganda victory that advertised America as a country of seemingly limitless resources and talent.
Yet soon after that lunar stroll, the war in Vietnam and social unrest exacted a great toll. The upheavals of the era called into question America's ability to use its power for benign purposes and its moral right to aspire to world leadership.
The space program had been sold to the public as representing all that was best in America. But the ugly domestic realities of poverty, racial conflict and student unrest, coupled with unpopular military adventures abroad and alarm over destruction of the environment, combined to sour faith in the very ideals the moon landings were meant to promote. It was no coincidence that America's retreat from space in the 1970s paralleled the country's diminished expectations for itself in domestic policy and its slide into malaise on global affairs.
"A man's reach must exceed his grasp," wrote the poet Robert Browning, "or what's a heaven for?" For a brief, shining moment Americans summoned the faith, courage and skill to reach for the stars and attempt to fulfill one of mankind's oldest dreams. All too quickly it was over, a casualty of war and domestic strife and the failure of will and vision of politicians more concerned about exploiting the differences among Americans than bringing them together in a common purpose.
Space is the last frontier, but America has yet to recapture the true pioneer spirit that marked the high point of the Apollo program. The shuttle and the proposed space station have survived despite serious setbacks, but they no longer reflect the exhilarating, go-for-broke sense of national self-confidence the moon missions expressed, nor the awe millions of people across the globe experienced on seeing human footprints in the dust at Tranquillity Base. That was an image of heroism in service of a noble enterprise that nothing since has quite managed to surpass.