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Comment: we come in peace

By any measure, the Apollo programme represents one of the most stunning achievements in human history. For a single fact to really drive home the immensity of that accomplishment, recall that less than a dozen years passed between the Soviet opening shot in the Space Race - Sputnik - and Neil Armstrong's immortal moment on the lunar surface. Today, we'd spend that long messing around with design studies, simulator training and health and safety assessments.

Also, consider NASA's present-day efforts to return to the Moon. The rocket is a bit bigger than Saturn V, the lander can accommodate more than Apollo's two astronauts and the on-board computer power makes Apollo's systems look like an abacus but, basically, the Constellation concept for getting there and back is so familiar that it's been dubbed "Apollo on steroids".

The legacy of the Moon is hard to identify

That the Apollo concept could be so perfect is doubly impressive given that its engineers were starting from scratch and, when President Kennedy called for there-and-back by the end of the decade they had barely eight-and-a-half years to go and not even a fax machine to help co-ordinate their efforts.

But the legacy of the Moon is harder to identify.

A cynic would note that beyond a touchstone of US national pride and freeze-dried food, it's not obvious what enduring good came from Apollo. While the Moon men blazed their trail, the Cold War just got hotter, Vietnam raged on and the economy tanked. By 1972 and the last Moon mission the USA was a divided, war-weary nation with a ruined president facing terrorist threats, recession, a fuel crisis and a fear of nuclear annihilation nearly as strong as during the Cuban missile crisis back before it all began.

A more generous reading of history would credit Apollo with showing its own and future generations the power of the human spirit in its quest for knowledge and adventure.

And the technologies that might - if we have enough social and political will - save us from our planet-raping ways have been driven by the environmental movement and the IT revolution, with lots of help from low-Earth orbit science that arguably would be relatively crude without the Moon experience.

There is much to celebrate in Apollo. But as the economy languishes and without the spur of competition against a mortal enemy, don't be surprised if we mark the 60th anniversary of July 1969 with another look back at Apollo 11.