The U.S. sent five more missions. But by the end of the Apollo program in 1972, the passion for the moon had faded. American television curtailed its coverage, more enamored of Watergate and other earthly concerns. Twelve people walked on the lunar surface.
Space workers dispersed to other programs, budgets shrank and the moon once again was just a silver orb in the night sky, inspiration to poets and songwriters rather than engineers.
The lunar landscape in Texas was bulldozed and forgotten.
NASA is rebuilding it. Kosmo is in charge.
A few hundred miles above the moon, the European Space Agency's SMART-1 maintains a lonely vigil -- the only craft now in lunar orbit.
From 1959 to 1976, the United States and the Soviet Union sent 60 missions to the moon. Then came a long hiatus.
Missions resumed in 1990, first with the Japanese Hiten probe to test space technologies. It was followed by NASA's Clementine in 1994 and Lunar Prospector in 1998, which mapped the rocky surface.
SMART-1, the European Space Agency's first lunar mission, arrived in 2004 to test a new solar-powered ion drive and collect scientific data.
It will soon have plenty of company.
The Japanese are readying Lunar-A and SELENE for launch on missions to survey the moon's geology and topography. Then comes India's $100-million Chandrayaan-1 mission in September 2007. The 1,150-pound craft shaped like a 5-foot cube will orbit the moon's polar regions for two years and make a chemical map of the surface.
China is preparing to launch its Chang'e 1 probe at about the same time to study the lunar environment from orbit. By 2012, China would start work on a spacecraft capable of bringing material back from the moon. A landing by taikonauts would occur after 2017.
China, India and Japan have ambitious strategic goals to develop advanced technologies for military and commercial uses.
The countries are pouring money and people into the task. India's space budget, for example, is $600 million a year, employing 20,000 people -- about as many as NASA.
Suffusing the enterprises is a sense that reaching the moon -- ultimately with human explorers -- will become a dividing line of this century, separating great powers from lesser ones.
"If you can send humans into space, you can play with the big boys," said NASA lunar expert Wendell Mendell.
The military and commercial potential of the moon has sparked tensions reminiscent of the Cold War -- with space-faring nations eyeing one another's advancing rocket technologies.
"There's a lot of politics among countries in East Asia that we saw in the West before," said Jerry Sanders, a NASA lunar program manager.
But there is also a sense of brotherhood among the moon researchers who sense their long-held dreams could soon become reality.
"Welcome to Toronto, the capital of the moon this week," said the European Space Agency's chief scientist, Bernard H. Foing of Noordwijkt, the Netherlands. About 200 scientists and visionaries from across the globe participated last summer in the largest gathering of moon experts in the world.
The spirit of community was rooted in a simple fact: No country, including the United States, can afford to go it alone -- financially or technologically. During Apollo, Congress allocated 5% of the nation's annual budget to the moon race. Today, NASA and all its programs is 0.7% of the budget.
The 30-person Chinese delegation caused the biggest stir in Toronto, because so little was known about its military-run space program.
Trying to break the ice, Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, slapped a Toronto Blue Jays cap on the head of Hao Xifan, head of the Chinese group.
Friedman feared he'd offended the dour Chinese scientist, but the response was pure detente.
Hao turned the cap backward and wore it street-style throughout dinner with a smile.
Hard Work Ahead
For legions of dreamers hoping for humanity's return to the moon, the vision of bustling space communities, giant orbiting power plants and commuter flights to space seem so tantalizingly close.
The gulf between possibility and reality, however, remains vast. One of those striving to close that gap is Larry Clark, who's building a robotic laboratory in the foothills of the Rockies outside Denver to make oxygen out of moon soil.
The goal is to be able to make 9 pounds of liquid oxygen a day. "That's enough to keep four people alive," said Clark, a Lockheed Martin Corp. engineer.
The chemistry is relatively straightforward, relying on the extensive supplies of ilmenite on the moon. Because ilmenite is rich in titanium oxide, the trick is to strip the oxygen from the titanium.
Four methods are being tested, Clark said. The challenge is that all of them require heat, a lot of it. Clark estimates that by stripping the top few inches of soil from an area the size of a basketball court, moon explorers could make enough oxygen to supply a small enclosed lunar base for about half a year.