Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik I, which launched the so-called “Space Age.” A great article about what we thought it meant then versus what we know about it now is located here at the Washington Post. Here are a few samples:
Much that seemed certain in October 1957 turned out to be misunderstood or purely illusory.
Humans have not set up space colonies or left boot prints on Mars, as widely predicted, but we have launched a stunning number of new Sputniks — thousands of satellites for communications, navigation and surveillance that have changed everything from how we fight wars to how our rental cars guide us to our hotels.
One result of Sputnik had nothing to do with space. It was the creation of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a technology think tank that went on to develop a computer network called Arpanet. Arpanet evolved into the Internet.
“The great irony is that what we actually saw in space, what we actually accomplished in space, was strikingly different but ultimately more significant than what was anticipated,” said Roger Launius, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum.
. . .
Sputnik made the popular President Dwight D. Eisenhower suddenly appear out of touch, almost semi-retired. Paul Dickson’s “Sputnik: The Shock of the Century” reports that Eisenhower played golf five times during the week of Sputnik’s launch.
But Eisenhower had his own geopolitical calculations that the public knew nothing about. He wanted to avoid the militarization of space and insisted that the first American satellite would use a nonmilitary rocket. He knew that the United States would soon have spy satellites for observing the Soviets.What he didn’t anticipate was the public relations disaster that the “Red moon” would become for him. Even the Soviets underplayed the achievement initially.
. . .
On the 50th anniversary of the Space Age, few people use the term “Space Age” anymore. It’s the Information Age now, and the era of globalization. Space technology has played a key role in the creation of a highly networked, accelerated, communications-saturated civilization.
People who have grown up in the age of satellites may find them no more remarkable than streetlights or storm sewers. They’re infrastructure.
Sputnik plus the Internet equals Google Maps. Click on “Satellite,” zoom in, and you can see your house from space.
What I find amazing about all of this is how no one in the know about either Sputnik’s launch or the nascent Soviet and American space programs seemed to think of it as a particularly big deal, nor did they anticipate the outburst of fear it would provoke in the United States and the ensuing “space race” between the two countries. One of the things the article emphasizes was that Sputnik itself was not really the most important element of its launch, it was the rocket that could propel it into space, and that the reason the Soviet Union developed such a powerful rocket was because the country actually lagged behind the U.S. technologically and couldn’t miniaturize nuclear weapons like the Americans could. The reason the Americans hadn’t developed such a rocket first was because they had no need for one. The U.S.’s nukes weren’t nearly as heavy as those with which the Soviet Union had to make due.
It’s interesting how things never turn out the way you think they will. 50 years ago, people thought we’d have permanent colonies on Mars by now. Nobody saw anything like Google Maps or GPS coming, nor did anyone foresee the technologies developed as a result of space travel that enable those two examples to exist. I can’t take a vacation to the moon, but I can plot the exact distance of my runs to the nearest hundredth of a mile using a blend of satellite and computer technology developed as a result of space exploration.