Happy Birthday Sputnik…

Happy Birthday Sputnik!Fifty years ago today, the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik and changed the world.

On the face of it it wasn’t much, an aluminum sphere the size of a basketball.  However, in terms of impact it was gigantic – the first man made object launched into space and circling the globe.

For some seized in the irrational grip of the cold war, it was the beginning of the end of times – the godless Russian beasts had beaten us into space.  Would be ever feel safe again with this beeping little ball circling us constantly.  What would come next?  Missile platforms in space?  War on the moon?

Happily, Sputnik was seen by most rationale people for the achievement it was – the first tentative step into the exploration of our universe.  Young and old looked up into the night sky that October and saw the great possibilities of space travel.

For whatever motive, the United States saw it as a challenge and raced to catch up.  Five years later President Kennedy issued his own challenge to land a man on the moon and return him to earth before the end of the 1960’s. 

Where the 1950’s had been dominated by cold war paranoia and a nuclear weapons race, the 1960’s were focused on the space race to beat the Russians and get to the moon first. 

Now, fifty years after Sputnik the children growing up in this new century have never known a time when men (and women) were not circling the earth.  Launches are an everyday occurrence as we continue to build and live aboard the International Space Station. 

Mistakes have been made and lives have been lost through the years and, unfortunately, the space program has stalled due to the costs and benefits of programs such as the Shuttle program and the Space Station.  Not surprisingly some people have developed a cynicism about going into space, the money, they argue would be better spent right here on earth.

But is it a case of money?  The United States is currently spending billions on a war against terrorism.  Sad to say that the money they have spent to date probably would have financed a trip or two to Mars.  But where the government seems to have lost some of the momentum on exploring the universe, private enterprise has jumped in. 

Already Sir Richard Branson is selling trips for his Virgin Galactica space tourist jaunts.  And more than one high tech billionaire has ponied up the $20 million or so that the Russians are charging.  And twenty years after Challenger we have finally seen the first teacher in space.

So, as we celebrate the remarkable achievement of Sputnik and all that followed, I like to believe that when it comes to space things are looking up.

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