IT was a small step for a man, but remains the greatest leap made by mankind in the history of space exploration.

Next month the world will come together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings and the achievements of first men who walked upon the lunar surface.

On July 20 1969 NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin stepped from their landing module and onto another world, gazing back to see our own earth hanging in the night sky.

While others have returned, the first moon landing marked a milestone in the space race which will not be met again until the next planet is touched by human hand, off in the inky depths of space.

But although Armstrong and Aldrin left behind a plaque which stated they had “come in peace for all mankind”, the genesis of man’s flight to the moon lies in the rivalry of the Cold War.

With the Americans and the Soviets locking horns in flashpoints across the globe, the space race took their animosity to new heights. And it was the Russians who made the first great advances. Fuelled by the most powerful rockets in the world at the time, they launched the first artificial satellite - Sputnik - into orbit in 1957, and reached the moon with their Lunik probe just two years later.

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Then, in 1961, Soviet scientists achieved what was thought beyond them, and launched the first man - pilot Yuri Gagarin - into space.

US President John F Kennedy resolved that the US would not be beaten again, and set NASA on a course for the next frontier - a manned mission to the moon.

In September 1962, he said: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

“Because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

The wheels were set in motion. Dr Timothy Peacock, Lecturer in History at the University of Glasgow, explained what was at stake: “The US/Soviet rivalry was intense, with any achievement which could aid in demonstrating the superiority of Capitalist or Communist superpowers mobilised in support, from films and food to the latest scientific advances.

“The rivalry in space represented the Crown Jewels of Cold War theatre and propaganda. Images or film clips of spaceflight successes were like science fiction brought to life, firing both popular imagination and the international prestige of their architects to the same heights as the rockets themselves.

“Every new achievement was heralded as a testament to the technological sophistication of that superpower. The first satellite in Space, the first animal, the first man, the first woman, the first spacewalk, the first Moon landing.”

This rivalry would propel the Apollo programme which would carry out the first orbit of a celestial body by a crewed spaceship, before landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon.

A third astronaut, Michael Collins, stayed behind in lunar orbit, floating around the moon alone for more than 20 hours, 238,000 miles from earth.

With the Cold War now a memory, science will once again take the lead in celebrating the trio’s achievements. Museums and discovery centres around the world have already begun programmes of events to celebrate the first moon landing, with NASA taking the lead.

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On July 19th the space agency will host a series of broadcasts from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the newly-restored Apollo mission control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

In France, astronauts Walt Cunningham (Apollo 7), Charlie Duke (Apollo 16), and Al Worden (Apollo 15) have launched a week-long program of celebrations, presentations dedicated to the space race at the Paris airshow while in Australia the US Embassy will host a race-to-the moon exhibition at its embassy in Canberra.

In the UK, events have been brought under the banner of Moon50, with dozens happening around the country over the course of the year, including a screening of the dramatisation First Man in Glasgow and a talk by Professor of Planetary and Space Science at The Open University Monica Grady at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh later this year.

Each will encourage people who take the moon landings for granted to look again with fresh eyes at one of mankind’s greatest achievements and great lasting legacies. Dr Peacock explains: “We’re talking about launching the first satellite and only 12 years later being able to transport people 360-400,000km through Space, landing in a largely unknown environment only visited by a handful of unmanned probes, returning safely to Earth at speeds faster than any person in history, surviving for a total of 6-12 days, against hazards of solar radiation, extreme temperature variations, and the vacuum of Space.

“The Moon landings have had many long-lasting effects, inspiring generations in everything from studying science to prompting critical Space investment of countries and companies that continues today, in a renewed ‘Space Race’ to return people to the Moon’s surface.”