When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon, it was a first for the Soviet Union — the first time the U.S. had beaten the U.S.S.R. in the space race. Forty years later, the memory of that loss of primacy still seems to sting the Russian soul. When state TV channel Rossiya reported last week on the restoration of video footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the account gave a lot of attention to dubious conspiracy theories that the landing was faked.
"In the United States, more than anywhere else, they are sure of the believability of the steps on the moon," the report said, adding that Armstrong keeps a very low profile. "This also seems strange to many people."
For a dozen years before the July 20, 1969, moon landing, Moscow racked up an extraordinary array of superlatives. It was the first to send a craft into orbit, with the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The first human to go into outer space was Russian Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Moscow sent the woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963; and Alexei Leonov was the first person to venture outside a spacecraft into the endless cosmos, in 1965.
Russia even got to the moon first when the unmanned Luna 2 crashed in 1959. But the drama of the first human footprint on an extraterrestrial body eclipsed everything the Soviets had worked so hard to achieve.
"Beginning with the first flight with a primitive capsule, and then getting to the moon, it was a great achievement for humanity," Russian astronaut Sergei Krikalev said.
"Of course, we would have liked to see the first man on the moon be Soviet, Russian, but that's life ... Our own achievements were very many," he told Associated Press Television News.
In the 40 years since the Apollo 11 landing, the Soviet Union and Russia, which inherited the Soviet legacy, has shot ahead of the United States occasionally, only to fall further behind.
The Soviet Union put the first space station into orbit with the Salyut 1 in 1971. However, the first crew couldn't get aboard because of docking problems. Another three-man crew later got aboard, but died when a valve failed on the capsule bringing them back to Earth.
Then there was the Mir — the first space station fit for long-term habitation. Launched in 1986, the same year that the Challenger explosion dealt a heavy blow to America's space effort, Mir achieved early glory. But that quickly faded after 1991, when the Soviet collapse choked off funding for the space program and the Mir suffered a series of accidents, including fires and a collision in 1997 that tuned it into a symbol of danger and decay.
Earthlings scanned the sky nervously on the day in 2001 when the 140-ton craft plunged to its fiery end. Luckily, it landed in the Pacific Ocean.
In recent years, Russia's space program has earned as a workhorse rather than a racehorse — reliable, cooperative, even stolid.
Its cramped Soyuz manned capsules and unmanned Progress cargo ships had already served as the lifeline to the international space station for more than two years when the United States grounded its space shuttles in 2003, after the Columbia disintegrated on re-entry.
The Russian space program will once again be the primary gatekeeper to the orbiting laboratory in 2010, when the shuttle fleet is grounded for good.
That doesn't mean Russia has lost its ambitions for primacy in space.
The U.S. is busy planning to replace the shuttles. But last year, Russia awarded contracts for design of its own next-generation spaceship to replace the Soyuz. The competing efforts could trigger a new space race.
Russian space officials meanwhile still seem to be dreaming about winning the next stage of the space race.
They keep talk in tantalizing terms about mounting a manned mission to Mars, although they say that would take at least another 20 years to get off the ground.
"I think this is fine. It's like sports — at one stage one person wins, at another it's somebody else," said Krikalev.
APTN producer Vika Buravchenko in Moscow contributed to this report.