Unlike most of the population of the world, I remember the day Apollo11 landed on the moon. I'm not sure I watched the first moonwalk live - I was only little, and four year olds tend not to be awake at 3am, especially when they have nursery school in the morning. But I'm old enough to remember flickery black and white coverage of men in big white suits bouncing around a dusty crater in not much gravity. And I remember looking up at the moon from my back garden in the knowledge that two Americans were up there, somewhere on the surface, impossibly far above the clouds. It worries me that my memories are now in the minority.
Back in the 1960s, space was big news. The world's two major superpowers spent the entire decade attempting to out-space the other, and the anticipation rippled over into everyday life. Who would reach the moon first? What might lay in wait out there? Would it have a big green head and six arms? If I play the alien would you be the astronaut - quick before the bell rings for the end of playtime. People genuinely cared about our future journey into space, and not just because some NASA scientist had invented non-stick saucepans along the way.
Armstrong and Aldrin's journey to the moon was a pioneering first to outrank the very greatest human endeavour. More impressive than Christopher Columbus's transatlantic voyage, more impressive than the Montgolfier brothers' first balloon flight, more impressive even than Hillary and Tenzing reaching the top of Everest without freezing to death. Admittedly Neil and Buzz hadn't been solely responsible for their lunar journey, they had a huge pyramid of technicians and factory workers to thank for reaching Tranquility in one piece. But nothing humankind has done since 1969 has ever quite topped the fact that two men landed an aluminium shell on the moon and got themselves home again. It feels like homo sapiens has peaked, and the last 40 years have been on the downward curve.
As a child, the year 2009 seemed impossibly far away. We'd surely have a fully-functioning base on the moon by then, and have sent spaceships to Mars and beyond. But it never happened. The Apollo program was a one-off spike of brilliance, a premature exploration of outer space, and unexpectedly way ahead of its time. Subsequent space firsts have been noticeably less underwhelming (you stuck some men in a space station did you? great) (a tiny spaceprobe took some photos of Neptune did it? lovely) (Richard Branson wants to go up for a spaceflight does he? oh). There's no motivation today to reach for the stars, no drive to push back the farthest frontiers and, most importantly, no money.
NASA's current plans are to return to the moon by 2020, or thereabouts, which'd be just in time to ensure we don't spend a full half-century away from the place. But the technology's proving slow to develop, and funds aren't exactly fast-flowing, and there's every chance that the current economic downturn will see the project scaled down, delayed or even cancelled. Maybe the Chinese will get there first - history tells us there's nothing like a bit of global oneupmanship to inspire technological advancement. But the next world-shattering awe-inspiring lunar event now seems further away than ever, if it ever happens at all. And that's a damned shame.
The solar system is a really big place, yet we continue to explore no further than the crowded shell of our own tiny planet. We're no longer interested in what's out there, we're far more concerned with making the most of what we've got here. Sure space exploration is ridiculously expensive, but if 60s technology could power two men to the moon using a computer less powerful than a mobile phone, imagine what we ought to be able to achieve today. Instead I fear that the most astonishing technological event of my lifetime happened way back when I was four, and that I might not even live to see the next person walking on the lunar surface. It seems that Neil Armstrong was wrong, all those forty years ago. Apollo 11 was a giant leap for a man, but merely a small step for mankind.