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The small step for Neil Armstrong was a giant blow to the Soviet Union

In this July 20, 1969 file photo, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface.

Anonymous/The Associated Press

Watching the bubble-helmeted, space-suited Neil Armstrong bounce carefully across the moon's dusty, airless surface – a historic moment seen live by 600 million people on grainy black-and-white television screens – was mankind's first globally shared experience.

But the nerve-wracking thrill shared by one-fifth of the planet's population in 1969 – including tens of thousands who bought their first TV especially to witness the moon landing – was less a "giant leap for mankind" than a U.S. hammer-blow to the Soviet Union and a tipping point in the Cold War from which Moscow's Communists never recovered. Mr. Armstrong died this weekend at 82, but the legacy of his moon landing lives on.

Mankind, even Americans, soon lost interest in tramping on the moon. Three years and five more moon landings later, barely anyone watched, let alone cared, when the Apollo program was prematurely scrapped in 1972. Man hasn't gone anywhere beyond low-Earth orbit in the 43 years since. But the 1969 landing was the culmination of a decade-long space race against the Soviet Union. Apollo 11 ended it with a triumphant, convincing victory for the United States, making good on the gauntlet riskily thrown down by then-president John F. Kennedy in May of 1961.

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Mr. Kennedy's speech was a hasty response to Americans shaken by the Soviets' successful launch of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space who orbited the Earth high above the United States and – fleetingly – making good on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's vow to "catch up and overtake" the capitalist West. The Soviet cosmonaut's globe-girdling ride had stunned the United States, even more than Sputnik's first foray into space four years earlier. It was yet another in a series of Soviet space triumphs.

So, even as U.S. rockets were routinely exploding before launch, Mr. Kennedy pledged America "to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Astronauts and cosmonauts became gladiators in the monstrously expensive high-risk race. In the United States, they were glamorous, gracing the cover of Life magazine, racing across the country in a special fleet of single-seater jets, carousing with space groupies in shabby hotels near Cape Canaveral and – most of all – being blasted into orbit atop giant, fire-belching missiles.

Famously captured in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff , U.S. astronauts were the ultimate Cold Warriors and when Mr. Armstrong planted the Stars and Stripes on the moon, he drove a dagger into the Soviets' over-hyped claims of the inevitable triumph of "modern socialist man."

Instead, after suffering repeated and catastrophic failures – some kept secret for decades – Moscow abandoned its manned-moon mission program within a year of the 1969 American landing. Russia toyed with ambitious plans for a manned fly-by of Mars to trump the U.S. victory in the moon race but they too were abandoned. Soviet rocket technology did not have the hardware to deliver and the Soviet economy could not generate the money.

Mr. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who shared the tiny lunar lander in its harrowing ride to the boulder-strewn surface, left a plaque on the moon. "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

But it was fond sentiment rather than geopolitical reality. In all, a dozen men landed on the moon. All were American, all but one a serving or former U.S. military officer. There was nothing international about the Apollo effort. It was in-your-face Cold War rivalry and NASA, technically a civilian agency, shared facilities, expertise and personnel with the U.S. military space program

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Despite proxy wars and rhetoric, the Soviet Union never again successfully challenged the United States. Out-spent, out-engineered and out-romanced, the Soviet losses in the space race were harbingers of larger, more sweeping economic and political failures. Two decades after the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 heralded the fall of the Iron Curtain. Two years later the Soviet empire collapsed.

Nor was there anything ambiguous about the Americans beating the Soviets to the moon. Unlike the Berlin blockade and airlift 20 years earlier or the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – where, in both crises, the status-quo ante eventually prevailed – the Apollo astronauts hopping like slow-motion kangaroos on the low-gravity moon eventually driving golf-cart sized buggies and blasting golf shots pointedly rubbed Soviet faces in lunar dust.

The world watched. One superpower had won; the other lost.

For all the billing of a "giant leap for mankind," and the bags of space rocks, the moon race wasn't about science or shared endeavour. It was a contest, a deadly serious game played out with multistage rockets evolved from the same intercontinental ballistic missiles poised to obliterate the planet in mutually-assured destruction.

Decades later, manned space exploration is all but dead.

China, a non-player in the 1960s but now a would-be superpower, has launched a modest manned space program with a vague plan for a manned-moon mission. Successive U.S. presidents talk vaguely – and without committing the hundreds of billions needed – to return to the moon as a stepping stone to more ambitious manned missions to Mars.

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But human space-faring has none of the urgency, romance or drama of the 1960s.

Instead, unmanned missions – like the SUV-sized Curiosity rover – that landed successfully on Mars shortly before Mr. Armstrong's death, promise far more science at far less risk and cost, mostly because there's no need to keep humans alive or bring them back.

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