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Diary: Julie Etchingham

King of Pop’s moonwalk trumps Neil Armstrong’s

To Florida for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings. You know you're on the right track when you turn on to Astronaut Boulevard, Cape Canaveral. "Welcome to Merritt Island Florida - where dreams are launched," announces one billboard. "Space Man - for all your storage needs!" runs another. But where are the billboards and bunting marking the anniversary of this place's most auspicious moment - sending Neil Armstrong and the rest to the moon? You can search high and low. Nada.

The big US networks make some effort, gamely broadcasting "new enhanced footage" of the moon landings, which looks no different from the original. But given that, at the time, the landings were proclaimed "the biggest story since the Creation" (by Richard Nixon), there's nothing on the scale you might expect. I ask a US colleague why. "Whisper it softly," he says, "but we all blew our budgets on Michael Jackson." He goes on: "You gotta remember, to most Americans, history is something which happened last week." So, that is the tribute to the men who in effect strapped themselves to a flying bomb for all mankind: the King of Pop's moonwalk trumps Neil Armstrong's.

We take an early-morning walk along Cocoa Beach with Charlie Duke, the capsule commander who talked Apollo 11 in to land. Three years later, he, too, walked on the moon - one of only 12 astronauts ever to do it. Duke's soft Texan drawl is still full of wonderment at his experiences, but there's also regret for all those who were left back on earth. "I was in the air force; I got lucky. Most of my friends got sent to Vietnam,
and I got to go to the moon." He shakes his head. "It was hard on all our families - there aren't many of the 12 of us who, like me, are still with our original wives. It just consumed you." Would he go back? "You bet. I'd do it tomorrow."

On the anniversary of the launch we head to Nasa's set-piece celebration at the Kennedy Space Centre - but Neil Armstrong is nowhere to be seen. The one man everyone wants to hear from has taken a giant leap into obscurity. A decent, quiet intellectual, plagued for years by overenthusiastic autograph hunters, he now shuns the limelight and has never sought financial gain from his achievement. He has a brief appearance in Washington, DC lined up later in the week - but today, apparently, he's fishing in Colorado. There's a lot of tooth-sucking over this at the Kennedy Space Centre as an Armstrong-less line of elderly astronauts troops out for the media. "He's Nasa's rock star," one journalist complains, "and they completely fail to get him to show up." In this celebrity-obsessed nation, you can't help giving the man a quiet cheer.

The ageing astronauts are a curious bunch. Blazer-clad, they sit before us in a row, like the committee of a suburban golf club. A suave guy from CNN starts to introduce them to the crowd of T-shirted, flip-flopped Space Centre visitors. But the microphone's not working. "Heh heh," Mr CNN says, "we can fly a man to the moon, but Nasa can't get the microphone to work." The veteran astronauts, brains the size of planets and used to ruthless efficiency in all things technological - sit with smiles fixed.

Broadcasting News at Ten from the Space Centre presents a few challenges, too. With the time difference, we're on air at 5pm - prime time for storms to roll in on Cape Canaveral. Our colleagues at NBC have rigged up a satellite truck for us, and a gazebo to cover our cameras and laptops - but 40 minutes before we go on air, the first clap of thunder sounds and the heavens open. Presenting with an umbrella is not an option - you don't come all this way to cover up the backdrop and, anyway, it's too dodgy given the lightning - so it's an anxious time as we search the sky for a patch of blue. For NBC, however, this is routine business - their iPhones are equipped with an app showing the current Florida cloud formations exactly. "Give it half an hour," they tell us, as we try to rehearse our links in the deluge. And they're right: just as I hear the bongs at the top of the programme crackling down my earpiece from London, the last drops fall, the heat returns - and out come the midges and mosquitoes. As I read out the links to our pieces, my feet and ankles come under attack and the urge to bend over and smack the bugs away is almost irresistible.

The death of the legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite has an extraordinary effect on the story of the anniversary. Suddenly it's propelled to the top of the US news bulletins, as the footage of the night he took millions of Americans on the TV journey of their lives is played over and over. His voice propels you straight to the Sixties: Kennedy, Vietnam, civil rights. His rare show of emotion at the landings - a chuckle and a tear wiped away - is a perfect reminder of the relief and joy of the moment. And even in death, Cronkite pulls off an exclusive - it prompts a statement, praising the ultimate newsman, from Armstrong himself.

Julie Etchingham is a presenter on ITV's "News at Ten"

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right