Still `One Giant Leap'

A METEOR shower of television programs and newspaper and magazine articles has cascaded down on us this month as the world marks the 25th anniversary of the first humans setting foot on the moon.

It's proper that we take time to recall and celebrate a seminal historical event. It would be a shame, however, if the real meaning were lost by treating the moon landing as no more than an element of cold-war politics or 1960s pop culture: TV images of the mountainous Saturn 5 rocket steaming on the launch pad; crew-cut technicians sweating out the descent in mission control; Neil Armstrong's ``small step'' from the ladder and ``giant leap for mankind.''

Yes, the space program was a dominant element of its time, from President Kennedy's 1961 call to go to the moon by the end of the decade to the July 20, 1969, touchdown. In its heyday the program was gigantic, employing about 400,000 people; in 1966 alone, the US spent almost $6 billion on it, more than 4 percent of the federal budget at that time. Critics charged the program with waste and said it took funds and attention away from pressing social problems, such as racial inequity and poverty.

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To others, the landing validated America's free-enterprise system, which came from behind to beat communism in the race to put humans on the moon. And it spurred advances in science and technology, from telemetry to cordless power tools.

But the true meaning of the lunar landing stands above these cultural and technical landmarks as high and clear as a full moon on a cloudless night. It marks humanity's unfettered ability to reach for the stars. The mission, conducted ``in peace for all mankind,'' briefly unified the world as a half-billion people stopped to watch via television.

As this newspaper noted at the time: ``Although it is clearly one of the climaxes of human progress, it is also but one step upon the ladder of man's mastery of the universe. It helps provide insight into the promise which lies behind that great question to be found in Psalms: `What is man, that thou art mindful of him? ... Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.' ''

Today, there is little political will to speed space exploration; funding for a space station hangs by a thread. The moon mission itself taught us that crash programs are inefficient; it will take a coordinated international effort if we are to reach farther out.

But the stars still twinkle and beckon. Whether slowly or quickly, we will go.

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