IN THE 1995 movie "Apollo 13," there's a scene in which astronaut Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, looks up longingly at the moon from his backyard. Then he blocks it from view just by winking one eye shut and moving a fingertip to cover it in the night sky. This week, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that landed men on the moon's surface, we're still straining to comprehend the vast distance those human beings traversed -- the quarter of a million miles that make an object one-sixth the size of the Earth look like a thumbnail -- and to recapture the wonder of a moment that seems, in a way, almost as tiny and far away in time as it was in space.
For most people, the memory of that moment still stands out amid the clutter of anniversaries and commemorations. John Pike captured some of the feeling when he was asked on a morning news show why going to Mars still excites him: "I mean, the 20th century is the most violent century in human history, but at least we had the achievement of Apollo." Those who remember staying up late on July 20, 1969, to watch scratchy TV images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin leaping around the lunar dunes might likewise put the moon landing on an emotional plane untouched by the ordinary.
And yet earthbound history persists, reminding us that the race to the moon was part of Cold War politics, that in the waning of that political imperative the drive to conquer space slackened, that to the average watcher of that heart-stopping landing the moon today is as far away as ever.
Anniversary coverage was swamped by memorial coverage of the son of the president who made the moon shot a symbol of American ambition and vigor. And yet the regular outpourings on these five-year anniversaries are a reminder that the romance of space travel, manned or unmanned, is far from quenched and that the moon itself, though periodically hidden, always comes back into view.