Feature

Talking points

Sputnik's legacy: Why did the Space Age end?

From the magazine 

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” said Dennis Overbye in The New York Times. When the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit 50 years ago this week, it was both a shock to American pride and a joyously clear signal (to those of us who were little boys at the time) that the age of space adventure had finally dawned. Sputnik was just the beginning. Soon, there would be moon bases, Martian colonies, laser weapons, and the rest. Men  did walk on the moon in 1969, of course, but that great leap forward has been followed by “decades of baby steps,” a bunch of unmanned probes, and a space-mounted telescope that only an astrophysicist could get excited about. Without the Soviets to compete with, said Traci Watson in USA Today, it seems that America’s zeal to go where no man has gone before has “gotten lost in space.”

That analysis misses an important point, said Sharon Begley in Newsweek. The U.S. space community is always muttering that we need “another Sputnik” to get our competitive juices flowing again. The truth is that our space program would be a lot further along today if it weren’t for the hysteria of those early days. Sputnik did indeed “light a fire under the American space program,” but it burned out after we spent billions beating the Soviets to the moon. If we’d run a “slower, steadier” space program that wasn’t so focused on short-term political objectives, the U.S. today would have cheaper rockets, bases on the moon—in other words, “vastly more to show for its space investment than it has now.”

Humanity, though, should be grateful, said Mark Carreau in The Houston Chronicle. More than 850 of Sputnik’s “mechanical descendants” are currently circling Earth. They help us communicate, navigate, and continue our investigations of the universe we live in. That’s not a bad legacy for an ugly, beeping aluminum sphere the size of a basketball. It isn’t so much that we lost interest in space, said The Economist in an editorial. It’s that the more we’ve learned about it over the past 50 years, the “rarer and more precious life on Earth” has come to seem.  Maybe one day we’ll again turn our attention to the vastness of the solar system and the stars beyond, but given what we’ve learned about the fragility and uniqueness of our home, it’s no surprise that “most of the satellites in orbit around Earth look down, rather than up.”

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