Today, 40 years ago (EST), two men from Earth landed on the moon, spent two hours walking around, and left after less then a day. Looking back on it, it would seem to be a somewhat anticlimactic end to a scientific struggle that consumed two nations, cost billions of dollars, and killed thirteen of the best and brightest the superpowers had to offer.
To us, the landing on this day 40 years ago is a wikipedia article, a quote, and some fuzzy film (that some say was shot on a film stage in Area 51). To them, from the two that landed to the guy emptying the trash can at OKB-1, it was their life. Planning for orbit, the moon, and beyond was a all consuming labor of nationalistic and scientific love.
The 60s and (to an extent) the 70s were the golden age of space exploration. Men speaking English and Russian took primitive, untested, seemingly fragile craft into the unknown that was Space. Seemingly unthinkable risks were taken to achieve goals that we, in this day and age, take for granted.
Like with many technical works, problems occurred. Sputnik, the catalyst for the moon race, was launched on only the 2nd successful launch of the R-7, with four previous attempts being spectacularly unsuccessful. Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, had to depressurize his spacesuit to dangerous levels to enable his return to Voskhod 2. Neil Armstrong, the famous, first moon walker, almost had a premature end to his space career when his Gemini 8 spacecraft entered an uncontrolled roll and had to be immediately deorbited.
Many were much more unlucky. Vladimir Komarov died when his landing parachute failed to deploy on reentry during Soyuz 1. Three American astronauts died testing Apollo 1. Thirteen American and Soviet spacemen died during space related activities during this golden age of space exploration.
Aside from the scientific advances made during this golden age, technical feats were also accomplished. The computer you are staring at and typing on this moment is a direct descendant of the Apollo Guidance Computer, the first real computer that could perform advanced calculations without having absurd power and space demands. Many of the things we use and depend on in daily life have their roots in the Moon Race.
As a scholar of the "Space Race", it saddens me to look upon the present state of space exploration. We have a shuttle designed and built with half the funding it needed and twice the requirements it could safely fulfill. We have one multinational space station that took over one hundred billion dollars and ten years to construct. We have no commercial stations, no moon bases, and no men on Mars. The promise and hope of a life beyond our planet came crashing down when short sighted politicians, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, decided that Space was not worth the investment.
Today is the day we celebrate this historic achievement. Today is the day we congratulate those who had the fortune to work on these projects and remember their sacrifices.
So here's to you, Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Aldrin, and Mr. Collins.
And to you, Mr. Gagarin, for having the balls to ride that first trail of fire into the heavens.
And to you, Mr. Korolev, for having the fortitude to persevere and launch your dream when everything was against you.
And to you, Mr. Kennedy, who gave that short speech at Rice University that started the Age of Exploration.
And especially to you, Mr. Bondarenko, Mr. Freeman, Mr. See, Mr. Bassett, Mr. Grissom, Mr. Chaffee, Mr. Komarov, Mr. Williams, Mr. Dobrovolski, Mr. Volkov, and Mr. Patsayev, who gave everything to advance our knowlege beyond Earth.