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One small step…

I was thirteen at the time.

I had school the next day, but my parents understood that the most momentous event in history was about to unfold, so I was allowed to stay up until stupid o’clock (I think it was about 3 or 4 in the morning) to watch the small, grainy, ghostly image of a man doing something utterly unprecedented: setting foot on the moon.

The next day, there were a lot of bleary eyes at school. Not much work was done: all we could talk about was how we had actually seen a man walk on the moon!

Like many children at the time, I was obsessed with the Apollo mission. I lapped up everything that James Burke and Patrick Moore could me tell about it. I bought models of the LEM and played with them on my mocked-up lunar surface carefully constructed from papier-mâché, jam pot lids and plaster of Paris. My pride and joy was a four-foot-high Saturn V model – I took more care building that than I had with anything else. It sat in our living room – no way was that going to be hidden from view – my parents lovingly indulging my obsession.

Over the next few years, I followed all the missions faithfully. I shared the frustration when Alan Bean fritzed the camera on Apollo 12, so we never saw live images. I spent days worrying over the fate of the Apollo 13 astronauts and I still remember the feeling of relief when the command module splashed down and they were safe again.

And then it all stopped. I didn’t appreciate at the time that we would never go back, that mankind had become, maybe, a bit blasé about the whole thing, that people were questioning the expense and need to go to the moon. No, my head was still filled with the idea of moon bases and that, just maybe, I could go there myself. I still want to go there. I can’t be Neil Armstrong – I can’t be the first – but I could still be one of those who has stood on another world.

My talents lay in a different direction, but my love of astronomy – my love of science – is as strong as ever, due in no small part to the efforts of a bunch of human beings (I don’t think issues of nationality ever entered my head) who reached for the greatest prize and grabbed it firmly in both hands. And to one man – a man that I have been insanely jealous of for most of my life.

In 2005, I went to the Kennedy Space Center with my family. We paused in the control room reconstruction to watch the video presentation and then walked through to the next room… and there it was: a Saturn V rocket. I looked up at the five enormous exhaust nozzles of the first stage and my childhood came flooding back. I walked the length of that magnificent vehicle, my family totally ignored as I was swept up in the moment. My eyes teared up as I gazed on this symbol of mankind’s greatest, most audacious adventure and all I could think was “I watched that”. I didn’t expect that short visit to be so emotional, but there it was – whatever else has happened in the world, good or bad, at that moment, only one thing was important: we, Homo sapiens, had walked on the moon. We had walked. On the moon. And my thirteen-year-old self had watched it as it happened.

My son, just a little younger than I was in 1969, beside the Saturn V

And now that ghostly figure from my living room television has gone, but the memories are as vivid as ever – more vivid, I think, than almost any other event in my life. Neil Armstrong – NASA – you inspired a young boy in a far-off land to dream of a spectacular future for humanity; a future from the science fiction novels that I eagerly devoured; a future of hope, ambition, striving; an end to pettiness and stupid quarrels. We still have that future in our reach: do we still have the will to grab it, though?

Since that day in 1969, whenever I look at the moon I think of the footprints that are still there. From now on I’ll also give it a little wink in memory of the first man on the moon.