THE July 20, 1969, moon landing is one of the few events in recent history that can live up to the superlatives written about it. Neil Armstrong's step onto the grainy lunar surface was the culminating event of a modern odyssey, a story that has worked its way deeply into national and global consciousness and life. The space program brought innumerable technical spinoffs - from digital equipment to satellites to synthetic materials to computers. It provided new heroes that combined daring and intelligence.
But perhaps the moon landing's central legacy will be its power as a symbol or metaphor for what is possible.
Twenty years earlier mankind witnessed another kind of symbol. The Nazi holocaust and the specter of the hydrogen bomb showed the depths to which humankind could sink - a depraved being on a tiny rock in space capable of mass genocide or self-extinction.
Yet while hardly erasing this history, the soft blue view of Earth from the moon hinted at a nobler side of man. Over the TV crackled the words ``Tranquility Base - the Eagle has landed,'' and one could be inspired to ask with the Psalmist ``What is man that Thou art mindful of him?''
Thousands of unsung heroes supported the astronauts. They deserve more credit than they've received. Neil Armstrong said this week he was elated when the Eagle landed mainly because it took a third of a million people ten years to do it. When President Kennedy announced the plan in 1962, the US had spent a total of 15 minutes in space. Jet propulsion had to be developed. Guidance systems. Digital telemetry. How could a craft reenter the atmosphere and not burn up? Should the moon shot use only brute rocket force or borrow from Earth's gravitation for power?
One director of launch support, wondering how to move the 2,900 ton Saturn rocket onto the launch pad was looking out a window at a parking lot during a meeting when he said ``We need a parking lot that moves.'' Thus was the famous ``crawler'' born.
A generation of US engineers spent countless nights away from home solving a thousand and one such problems.
The 20th anniversary of the moon shot has caused waves of nostalgia and new proposals for moon bases and manned Mars missions. Such proposals need to be tempered by intelligent realism - both scientific and budgetary.
The exploration of space will take centuries. We support joint US space exploration and expense with other nations. Such collaborations would be a new frontier.