The real-life moon men land in Suffolk

Rebecca GoughFor decades space exploration has been the topic of intrigue and speculation. From supposed UFO sightings to crop circles, almost everybody has a story to tell or a fascination with the unknown.Rebecca Gough

For decades space exploration has been the topic of intrigue and speculation. From supposed UFO sightings to crop circles, almost everybody has a story to tell or a fascination with the unknown. But for one team of astronauts, the final frontier is more familiar.

Millions of people across the world tuned in to see coverage of man's first mission to the moon in 1969.

And 1,000 packed into RAF Mildenhall on Thursday to see the man of the hour in person, alongside a group of distinguished colleagues.

Accompanying first man on the moon Neil Armstrong on the Legends of Aerospace: The Impossible is Possible tour, was Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, the last astronaut to walk on the moon Gene Cernan, chief test pilot of the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft Bob Gilliland, last Air Force pilot Steve Ritchie, and former host of American television show Good Morning America, David Hartman.

In 1961, the then Soviet Union launched the first man into space, prompting a response from President John F Kennedy that 'this nation (America) should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.'

Between 1963 and 1965, the Soviets launched the first woman and three-man crew, but in 1967 tragedy struck when the crew of American rocket Apollo 1, Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Edward White II and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire on the launch pad.

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In 1969 however, Mr Armstrong, Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin and Michael Collins were named as the crew for the historic flight on Apollo 11. The success of the Apollo 11 mission made the dream of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s a reality.

The group received a standing ovation at the Suffolk airbase, including a group of scouts who had arrived for the occasion.

Asked what their motto was the boys shouted 'be prepared', and Mr Armstrong added: 'That was our motto on Apollo 11, too.

'More than 40,000 Americans spent a decade of their lives allowing us to make the Apollo 11 mission happen. We could not let them down.'

Mr Cernan however, referring to the first mission to take men to the vicinity of the moon, said: 'It was Apollo 8 that put a giant white line in space for Neil to follow.'

'Whoever painted it doesn't matter, I followed it and got there,' Mr Armstrong said.

Mr Armstrong, now 80, whose first words on the moon were immortalised as 'one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,' went on: 'My dream is that humans can travel freely and safely throughout the solar system and that human character improves to the point that we can eliminate armed conflict.'

Over the years since the mission, the first man on the moon has been typically more reserved than other members of the crew who are often seen on television and featured in stories.

However he and fellow astronaut and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell apologised that Tom Hanks, who featured in the Hollywood remake of the film by the same name, could not be present and said he regretted the audience would just have to be satisfied with the real thing.

Apollo 13, which took off in April 1970, was to be the third mission to land on the moon, but mid-flight an oxygen tank burst causing a loss of electrical power and failure of two oxygen tanks.

Despite a heart-wrenching few days as the world waited to see if the crew would land back on earth safely, the mission was termed a 'successful failure' as Mr Lovell, John 'Jack' Swigert and Fred W Haise, returned in the lunar module.

Mr Lovell said: 'The Apollo 13 mission was a classic case of crisis management which is very important to the military today.

'You have to think outside the box to solve problems you never thought you'd have to deal with.'

Throughout the evening, retired Brig Gen Ritchie added his experiences in the Vietnam war, and Mr Gilliland referred to the SR-71, known as the Blackbird, which, in 1974, travelled 3, 479 miles from the US to RAF Mildenhall in just one hour, 55 minutes, flying at more than three times the speed of sound. The SR-71 reconnaissance operations at RAF Mildenhall ran from 1976 to 1990, and were officially terminated in 1989.

'Continue to take risks and step into the frontiers not yet explored,' said Mr Gilliland to RAF Mildenhall personnel.

'It's putting one's life on the line for a greater good that makes a service member's mission noble. If there (isn't) a risk in being killed, it isn't worth doing.'