Apollo 13, the film of NASA's ill-starred trip to the moon in 1970, premiered a week ago and has proved an instant box-office smash, outdoing even Batman Forever. The flawlessly executed rendezvous between Atlantis and Mir, a merger which produced the largest spacecraft the world has ever seen, generated only passing interest. The video footage on the day of the event only made it onto the evening news programmes after the first commercial breaks.
Tom Hanks, who stars as the commander of Apollo 13, blazed the trail that Hugh Grant will follow this week and appeared on every nationally televised talk show of note. Norman Thagard landed home safely on Friday after spending more days (115) in space than any other American astronaut, but available as he was for extraterrestrial chit-chat on Larry King Live, neither Larry nor anyone else thought the ratings would merit the effort.
Given a choice between a virtual astronaut and a real one, American TV viewers will opt for the Hollywood impersonator ahead of the authentic star. Blurring that distinction, as Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote last week, was a trick Ronald Reagan used to devastating political effect. Mr Reagan's success rested on the recognition that playing President was the most important requirement of a White House incumbent in the TV age.
Which is why Tom Hanks' chances of becoming President one day are significantly better than Norman Thagard's. The one astronaut who could still make it on to Larry King, who could once have had the political world at his feet, is Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. But after the ticker-tape parades that greeted the return of his Apollo 11 mission, he resolved to resume a real life and judged that the only way to do this was by retreating into the obscurity he had discovered on the dark side of the moon.
America's living Christopher Columbus leads a life of Garboesque seclusion on a farm in Lebanon, Ohio, refusing all media interviews and invitations to take part in public events. The good citizens of Wapakoneta, his home town, were extremely miffed at his refusal to take part in a parade last year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the moon-landing. Recently divorced after 38 years of marriage, he has written no books, taken part in no political campaigns, endorsed no commercial products. His neighbours in Lebanon say that he is very straightforward and quiet, never brings up his lunar odyssey in conversation and has a very dry sense of humour. Asked many years ago how he felt knowing that his footprints might remain undisturbed on the lunar surface for centuries, he replied: "I hope somebody goes up there some day and cleans them up." An acquaintance of Mr Armstrong's told an American newspaper last year that he had once remarked that he "would rather be up there flying than be down on the ground".
The sense is of a man who has lost his appetite for life in the knowledge that no possible thrill could ever match the excitement of being the first man to walk on the moon. His fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, on the other hand, appears never to have quite lived down the disappointment of having been the second man to walk on the moon. As he confessed at the time, he was unhappy not to have stepped off the lunar module ahead of his mission commander. Mr Aldrin's response has been furiously to over- compensate down on earth. He has given lectures all over the world; worked as a publicist for Snapple soft drinks; promoted the sale of porcelain astronaut figurines and ties with moon rock designs; and licensed products in his own name, from watches to commemorative coins. Two years ago he was the voice of a cartoon character in The Simpsons and now he is hard at work co-authoring a science-fiction novel.
The humbling truth Mr Armstrong and Mr Aldrin must sometimes confront is that for all the colossal effort and expense involved in the Apollo programme, the returns have been few. Pete Sampras is no doubt grateful that the Apollo scientists stumbled across the graphite composites that are de rigueur in the modern tennis racket. But the feeling today in Washington, backed by the polls, is that at a time when legislators are entertaining cuts in welfare for the elderly and the poor it would be an obscene luxury not to curtail spending on future space travel.
The idea of the Atlantis-Mir expedition was to take the first step (big for Norman Thagard, small for mankind) towards building a giant space station by the year 2002. But this is a project the Americans have acknowledged they cannot contemplate alone. The plan is to enlist the help of the Russians, the Western Europeans, the Canadians and the Japanese.
The boffins at NASA know that their best days are gone, but they still talk gamely about sending a manned spacecraft to Mars within the next 10 years. Generating the enthusiasm for such a venture, not to say the funds, will be hard among a public weaned on the adventures of Star Trek's USS Enterprise. Mars 2005 seems a bit of a yawn when you know that Captain Kirk has already discovered intelligent life in the final frontier.