Exactly forty years ago today, with fuel running short and alarms buzzing, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set their lunar module Eagle down on the face of the moon, and mankind took its very first step on another celestial body. Last week, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) returned its first imagery of the Apollo moon landing sites. Even after all these years, there’s something truly heroic about seeing those lunar module descent stages sitting silently on the surface, testament to man’s imagination and determination.

If you have a close look at the photos accompanying this story, you’ll see most of those modules aren’t much more than tiny dots casting long shadows across the gray of the dusty surface. But the detail of the Apollo 14 site (February, 1971) is breathtaking: you can clearly see the landing module’s shadow, a nearby scientific station and, between the two, the tracks of the astronaut’s footprints (see Image Gallery). So far, the LRO has only photographed five of the six landing sites, with the remaining Apollo 12 site expected to be photographed in the next few weeks.

Of course, NASA didn’t launch the LRO just to take anniversary pictures. Its primary mission is to help identify suitable landing sites for future missions, locate potential resources, determine the moon’s radiation levels and test new technologies. NASA hopes to return astronauts to the moon in 2018 with the USD$187 billion Project Constellation. However, recent problems with the Ares rockets – which insiders claim would vibrate like a tuning fork, threatening to shake the rocket to pieces – suggest they may take a little longer. In the meantime, a number of consortiums in the private sector are competing for Google’s Lunar X PRIZE, which calls for a robot lunar landing by 2012.

NASA faces something of a quandary these days: the only missions that truly capture the public imagination are manned but, scientifically-speaking, there’s absolutely no reason to send men into space. Machines and robots are more than capable of performing any required tasks and, because they weigh less, don’t need oxygen and don’t necessarily have to return, they’re much cheaper to launch.

But, admittedly, there’s no romance in robotically-piloted space travel. It’s arguable that the Apollo 11 landing was mankind’s last truly great quest – they estimate one in three people on earth actually watched the landing – and part of what made it so momentous was how very precarious the whole enterprise seemed. Apollo 11’s on-board computer, for example, had a whopping 36Kb of memory – that’s probably less than most emails you send. And Armstrong seized the controls of the Eagle and landed manually, with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining, when he realized the computer had picked a landing site strewn with boulders.

They just don’t make adventures like that any more. But you can re-experience some of it by visiting NASA’s website, which has everything from comic book accounts of the mission to a restored moonwalk video. One of the most engaging – and the one that perhaps gives you the best sense of how amazing it seemed 40 years ago – is a nifty little interactive device that allows you to explore both the lunar landing site and the inside of the Eagle, all to the deadpan accompaniment of the original recordings of Armstrong, Aldrin and Mission Control.

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