Forty years ago, people all around the globe stopped to watch or listen as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Never had the world seemed so united. Race, creed and circumstance were rendered redundant by this most stirring and awe-inspiring of 20th century achievements. Man seemed to stand on the cusp of a golden age of exploration. The path forward, based on a progressive and interlocking development, was mapped out. A shuttle, a space station, a moon base, and manned flight to Mars, a planet that four billion years ago is thought to have had the conditions which shaped life on Earth. Four decades on, it has proved more dream than reality.
The plodding progress seems barely believable to those who thrilled to the message that "the Eagle has landed". It needs, however, to be viewed in terms of the varied motives that have governed exploration since Spanish and Portuguese navigators first set sail for unknown waters. The landing on the moon was very much the product of politics. President John F. Kennedy was determined the United States would beat the Soviet Union and have a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The Soviets had put the first man in space, as well as placing the first artificial satellite into orbit. American pride was at stake in what became known as the space race.
The Americans achieved their ambition, but at a cost. The budget for space exploration was essentially drained on a project that many scientists insisted from the start was a diversion from the more rewarding possibilities of their programme to push back space barriers.
There may have been substance to their view, particularly as the Americans, after a small number of further landings, soon left the moon to its barren self.
But those scientists failed to appreciate the romantic attraction of the moon landings to the public, and the way this, along with a strong strand of nationalism, prised open cheque-books. With the moon project a success, people struggled to become inspired by the next, essentially scientific, parts of the space programme. Politicians, for their part, had more earthbound concerns. In its own way, the moon landing was something of a dead-end.
That has meant subsequent developments in exploration have been contingent on different motives. The space shuttle received political support only because it was underpinned by commercial and defence interests. Its development has been in relative isolation, not as part of a continuum that would lead to a Mars probe within a certain period. The Russians, for their part, have always had their eyes on Mars but have concentrated on the space station concept, similarly as largely an end in itself.
That is not to say space exploration could not now be catapulted forward in a way that seemed a given in 1969. A pointer that life might have evolved elsewhere in this small corner of the universe could fire the popular imagination. Another trigger could be further but more significant commercial or defence imperatives. It is worth remembering that Columbus's voyage to the New World was the product of sponsorship from the Spanish Crown. It, like the first moon landing, sprang from politics and matters of prestige. Subsequent voyages were sparked by the commercial possibilities opened up by Columbus's discoveries.
Today, extraterrestrial flights have become commonplace. That breeds its own apathy. So, too, have we become accustomed to looking at the Earth from beyond the atmosphere. Yet the first views stunned and inspired us. We saw our world in a different, more unitary context; as small and fragile, and as a single entity, not a congregation of nations. As of now, that global perspective may be the single most impressive outcome of Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind.