Leading Article: The empty legacy of the Moon landings

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THIRTY YEARS ago this weekend, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were on their way to the Moon. Suddenly, the explorations of Captain Cook and Vasco da Gama, let alone the exploits of a Hillary or a Shackleton, were reduced to tiny dimensions. Space travel was the stuff of the gods. Our ancestors had worshipped the Moon, and its personifications in figures such as Astarte and Diana. Now Neil Armstrong was about to put his boots on this sacred soil, and it seemed as if the whole world was watching the fuzzy black-and-white images of that magic moment in human history.

Only now can we start to assess the meaning of this epic adventure. It is now clear that science wasn't in it; this trip was about human pride. The Americans had been humiliated by the Russians being first to launch a satellite and to put a man into orbit; now they were going to win a much bigger space race. And, as with so much that was to follow, the hype masked the reality.

Certainly, that landing of the lunar module changed mankind. It may not, as so many people believe, have given us Teflon and Velcro, but it did give us a new sense of perspective. It helped us to understand how small we were in the scheme of things, banishing for ever the age-old views of the supremacy of man and leading to the birth of the modern environmental movement. There were also material spin-offs, such as the satellite communications that helped to speed globalisation and enable us to talk to each other on our mobile phones.

But beyond that? Today, it seems a strangely historical event, an empty imperial adventure not so far removed from the those of the sailors and navigators of hundreds of years ago. And, in a curious way, it has left us diminished. The futility of the whole business can be seen in the fact that one trip was all it took to dispel the illusory importance of the event. The subsequent explorations aroused little interest, and there are no plans to return in the foreseeable future.

And what of the Moon itself? It has been touched, explored, conquered - and now it is ignored. It is just another lump of rock revolving aimlessly in the heavens and, whether it contains water or not, few believe in that Seventies dream of holidays and hotels in space. Today, the real interest is still here on terra firma, in what we can achieve in the products of the human imagination, be that in artistic endeavour or in crashing through the technological or even sporting boundaries. And, in reality, that is precisely as it should be.