John Lichfield: The night I saw a real-life Dan Dare make history

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I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind. I was half-asleep in my parents' living room in a village in North Staffordshire. The rest of the family had gone to bed. I insisted on staying awake. Just about.

My memories, 43 years on, are as vague as the flickering, black-and-white television images of the time. But I do remember that I nearly missed the moment.

It must have been around 4am, North Staffs standard time, before Armstrong emerged from the Eagle. I woke just in time to see a ghostly figure, who looked like the Michelin Man wearing a motorcycle helmet, descending the ladder. Was I excited? Yes, I suppose I was.

My 19-year-old self was not especially interested in space or in science. I was working for my local newspaper, the Leek Post and Times, before going to university. In a school debate two years earlier, I had argued against space exploration as a waste of money that would be better spent on the starving of Africa.

Still, part of me, brought up on Dan Dare and Dr Who, believed that space was our destiny. In my own lifetime – by some impossible date in the future, such as 2012 – we would all be travelling to the Moon. I wanted to be able to say that I had seen the historic moment when a man first stepped on to the surface. It would, after all, be like the first footfall of Christopher Columbus in the Americas: a moment that changed the course of human history. In any case, in 1969, even live TV broadcasts from the other side of the Atlantic were impressive and rare. This was a broadcast from the Moon.

Another part of me, the late-1960s-long-haired lefty, was determined not to be impressed. Armstrong's famous sentence seemed limp and scripted. The stiffened American flag that he planted in the Moon's surface struck me as imperialistic and absurd. Was this about mankind? Or about America? Forty-three years later, as a former US correspondent of this newspaper, I mourn Armstrong's passing and salute his courage. He seemed to be a modest, intelligent, well-balanced man: not at all Moon-struck.

But was he the modern Columbus? Hardly. Compared with the exaggerated expectations of the time, Moon exploration has turned out, so far, to be a cul-de-sac. Space exploration has given us satellite communications and made our world smaller, for good or bad. It has not yet shrunk the universe.

My last memory of that July morning in 1969 was that, before going to bed, I went outside and looked up at the Moon. I suppose millions of people all over the world did the same thing. Our giant companion in space seemed, somehow, to have been violated and diminished. Now when I look up at the Moon, it seems to have reclaimed its virginity and regained its mystery. A small step for man; a giant leap for Moon-kind.

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