The beeping ball that launched the Space Age

Sputnik at Fifty 
By Michael Benson

Fifty years ago today, to the delight of many and the consternation of more than a few, the Soviet Union launched something like a silver volleyball with four swept-back antennas into Earth’s orbit.

That beeping sphere promptly became a symbol of that great rising wave in human technological capabilities that was cresting in the mid-20th century. (That it was in some ways also an extension of another revolution, the Great October one, was a circumstance that didn’t go unnoticed.)

Sputnik arrived well within the lifetimes of many who had witnessed the Wright brothers conduct the first heavier-than-air flight, and it triggered a massive new investment in scientific research and aerospace technologies in the United States. (Sputnik’s instant notoriety in American popular culture inspired San Francisco Chronicle writer Herb Caen to coin the term “beatnik” in an article on the Beat Generation less than a year later.)

The space race took human beings to the Moon only a decade later, when Apollo 8 circumnavigated our closest celestial companion in December 1968. Less than a year after that, the first human footprints were inscribed in lunar dust.

The Space Age proved somewhat more ephemeral, at least in the popular imagination. The last Moon landing was in 1972, after which NASA dropped its aspirations for human space flight to low Earth orbit and the Space Shuttle, a vehicle which flies a good deal lower than the Gemini missions of the mid-1960s. The final Moon landings were cancelled in part due to a decline in public interest, and in part because NASA wanted to concentrate on its reusable (and as it turned out, quite dangerous) space plane.

It was as though the Vikings, having conquered Iceland and Greenland and constructed the first European settlements in North America, then decided to keep their longboats piddling about safely within sight of Oslo harbor.

But the Vikings didn’t have robots. In fact, the explosion of technological innovation in the Space Age – and the resulting exponential expansion of our views of the universe and of our position within it – has continued in spectacular fashion.

Over the past two decades, it has produced quite a few results at least as impressive, if not quite as dramatic, as Neil Armstrong’s Moon landing in July 1969.

Robot explorers have visited every planet in the solar system save Pluto, which in any case was ignominiously downgraded from full planetary status last year and which will be visited by NASA’s low-budget New Horizons mission in 2015).

The findings of these missions include the remarkable discovery by the Galileo probe of the late ’90′s that Jupiter’s moon Europa almost certainly contains a vast ocean surfaced by a relatively thin global ice cap – something that raised the tantalizing prospect that life may have arisen underneath.

They also include recent radar observations by the Cassini mission to Saturn that indicate that the smoggy Saturnian moon Titan contains large polar lakes filled with something akin to lighter fluid, as well as observations by the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope of incipient solar systems within the Orion Nebula. The latter “proplyds,” each a disc of dust with a glowing coal at its center, call to mind a solar system “without form and void,” as the Book of Genesis has it, waiting to form into planets.

Add to this that fact that for more than three years now, NASA’s two remarkable solar-powered Mars Rovers continue to grind through sand storms and Red Planet winters, and one might be excused for thinking that deep space exploration is in excellent shape on Sputnik’s 50th anniversary.

Unfortunately, a less reassuring story is unfolding behind the scenes. NASA’s robotic deep-space missions, which have produced the major scientific discoveries of the space program, inevitably take many years of planning to get off the ground.

Yet in recent years funding for such flights has been cut back radically – by 25 percent, or $3 billion over the current five year period.

The reason NASA gives for this is that it has been mandated to return humans to the Moon, a far more expensive undertaking, and is currently developing a new generation of technologies designed to do that and then (at least, conceivably) take them onwards to Mars.

Inevitably, something had to give, and that something was robotic spaceflight. While a good case can be made for sending astronauts back on missions of exploration, this doesn’t have to involve gutting the agency’s science programs.

If the five decades that have elapsed since Sputnik’s first orbit tells us anything, it’s that the remarkable descendants of that silver sphere have been worthy emissaries of human curiosity – not to mention cost-effective harvesters of knowledge about our place in the universe.

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Michael Benson, a writer and documentary filmmaker, is the author of “Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes.”

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