The death of Neil Armstrong resonates so forcefully today not just because he was the first man on the Moon, and as such fulfilled so many vicarious dreams, or because his Moon landing seemed to clinch US victory in the Cold War space race. It is also because his life so closely mirrored the fortunes of the US space programme and his last decade was one in which Washington seemed to lose interest in conquering further frontiers.
There is truth in this. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and successive economic crises in the West sapped the impetus and funding for space exploration. But it is not the whole truth.
It is poignant that Armstrong died just as the US is celebrating the spectacular success of a new space venture – the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. In the breadth of its ambition, its timescale and the possibility of conducting such research without risking human life, this Mars mission shows that space exploration could be entering a new and exciting era and can yet recover its romance.