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Panorama: Moonwalking and muck-raking

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Eamonn Walsh | 17:49 UK time, Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The language of space exploration still resonates 40 years on: "God speed John Glenn", "The Eagle has landed" and of course the much-argued over, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". But much of that early optimism has since been extinguished.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, American and Soviet rivalry over the mastery of space had been simmering since the late 1950s. US President John F Kennedy's declaration in 1961 that the United States should commit itself to sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of the decade upped the stakes considerably. The space race was on.

Though the Soviets achieved many space firsts - like the first man in space in Yuri Gagarin in 1961 and indeed the first woman in Valentina Tereshkova in Vostok 6 in 1963 - they were narrowly beaten by the United States when Neil Armstrong and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin of the Apollo 11 mission became the first men to set foot on the moon on 20 July 1969.

Given the huge scale and ambition of space exploration, it was no surprise that Panorama had covered the development of the US space programme throughout the 1960s.

Sometimes the films just touched on the latest advances but on other occasions, and true to form, Panorama was the fly in the ointment.

Indeed, on the very day that the UK was waking up to the news that man had landed on the moon, Panorama ran a report on the demonstrators around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida who argued that the billions of dollars would have been better spent on feeding the starving millions. You can watch that report at the BBC's latest archive collection.

In December 1968, Panorama was on less controversial ground. The programme gained unique access to Nasa just a few days before the launch of Apollo 8 - whose crew became the first men to travel to the far side of the moon. Panorama was also fortunate enough to follow Nasa advisor Tom Paine as he supervised the launch of the second Orbiting Astronomical Observatory. The success of these missions paved the way for the moon landings the following year. You can watch an abridged vesion of that film here:

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Though the US returned to the moon several times, the excitement and optimism of that first time was never matched. The early successes of the space shuttle missions rekindled some public enthusiasm - but age, tragedies and economics have withered the public sentiment. The space shuttle programme has come to the end of its life and its replacement programme - known as Constellation and due around 2016 - has been questioned by US President Barack Obama.

Though its reputation has been tarnished over the years, space travel still has the power to humble and to move, as James May's recent flight to the edges of the earth's atmosphere showed. Maybe the 40th anniversary will once again show the post-war space programme and the moon landings as one of man's finest achievements.


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