In the middle of the cold war the feat of the Apollo 11 mission deprived the Soviets of claiming the moon as a war trophy.
Yet eight years previously it was a Russian’s exploit that spurred the Americans into joining the space race. In 1961 the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth in the Vostok I mission. It was a significant accomplishment for Soviet technology that notched up several firsts: from the launch of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik in 1957, to the first spacewalk by Alexei Leonov in 1965. The end of the Cold War and the emergence of new economic powers such as China and India re-ignited the space race. In 2003 lieutenant Yang Liwei became the first Chinese person to take part in a mission, circling the earth 14 times in 21 hours. The traditional rivals, the US and Russia, now co-operate in space exploration. For them, a return to the moon is but a step towards another goal, landing on Mars. An alliance with the European Space Agency could lead to the creation of a permanent base on the moon in the next few decades. The aim of the American Constellation programme is for another lunar landing in 2020, before reaching Mars ten years later. In contrast to the competition of years past, the cost of space conquest has united countries under a common objective. It is a view shared by the first man on the moon. Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 Commander, said that the space race between the USA and USSR “provided a mechanism for engendering cooperation between former adversaries… in that sense, it was an exceptional, national investment for both sides”. This week four Russians, a Frenchman and a German completed three and a half months of tests simulating the cramped living conditions a future mission to Mars would entail. The Mars 500 project was further proof of the transition from space race competition to co-operation. Perhaps one day the first man on Mars will plant something other than a national flag, to commemorate the next historic achievement.