It was 50 years ago this week that the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man made satellite to orbit the earth. It changed the world. In fact, there are few, if any events of the last 50 years that had such a global impact on just about every aspect of humanity.
I can still remember the night that, as a young boy standing in the front yard with my parents; we looked up at the starry sky waiting for Sputnik. There it was, a slow man-made star moving across the sky. We listened to its’ beeping on the radio. It filled me with wonder. I did not see it as Russian but rather as man made, that we humans had done this. The phrase “The sky’s the limit” was now a phrase of the past. This was space!
The launch of Sputnik caused great consternation in the United States. We had fallen behind the Russians. We were no longer the only player at the center of the stage of human dreams and aspirations. It has been universally acknowledged that this event triggered the space race and jump started a decades’ long emphasis on the teaching of science at all levels in the United States. Within the context of the cold war, this country felt threatened, vulnerable and challenged. That history has been well documented, so I will look at other developments that flowed from this event 50 years ago that suggest how truly significant it really was.
Sputnik took space out of science fiction into reality, from what if to now. A manmade object had left the planet which in turn lowered the perceptual wall of limitation to show a field of unimaginable possibility. It became a reference point and a metaphor of potential as in “Hey, if the Russians can put a satellite into space we can do________(whatever was the dream was being discussed). It was this type of thinking that led to President Kennedy’s great speech in 1961 about landing a man on the moon and bringing him home safely before the end of the decade. Thinking opened up.
The seeds of thinking globally were first strewn with Sputnik. When John Glenn and then others orbited the planet, the world listened as one to the human communications from space. We all watched it on TV. One of us, a human, was up there. Then there were two of us, then three at a time. Every launch into space became the dominant news story for the duration of the flight. It led the newscasts and was always on the front page. Eleven years after Sputnik, on Christmas Eve, 1968, the famous “earth rise” photo was broadcast from Apollo 8. We all saw the Earth as a beautiful blue planet surrounded by infinite blackness. Our planetary home seemed so fragile and alone in the universe.
This was the first time in the history of humanity that we could all see a photograph of our planet from space. This single image, more than any other, launched the environmental movement. It was clear that the planet was precious and finite. The first Earth Day was in 1970, 13 years after the launch of Sputnik. In some long and winding way, our current global environmental consciousness has grown from the launch of Sputnik. Marshall McLuhan’s great environmental quote was based in space terminology: “There are no passengers on Planet Earth, we are all crew”.
The possibility of space that we all started to live with after Sputnik helped to shape the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. While Viet Nam, Civil Rights, rock music and drugs are most often sourced as the change agents of this decade, space exploration was also a major influence. Astrology, a practice of prediction based upon planets became quite popular – Age of Aquarius anyone? As mentioned above, thinking opened up. Equal rights? Why not! Make love not war? Yes! If man can go into space he can solve terrestrial problems.
Sputnik also started something that was quite significant in the United States. In WWII, the country had been completely mobilized to win the Great War. What the country accomplished in those few short years had no historical precedence. After the war, and up until Sputnik, the United States took a much needed prosperity break. This was the time of Television, suburbia and the car culture. We had won and we enjoyed the fruits of our winning. Sputnik triggered a mobilization in the country. America showed itself to be able to mobilize around a goal, a mission of great historical magnitude. In 12 short years we went from a small sphere beeping its way around the planet, to actually walking on the moon. The government, NASA, business and the citizenry all coalesced around this incredibly inspiring mission.
We need to do this again today. This time not just as a nation but as one of many nations that need to collaborate to solve the global energy problem. Now, as in 1957, we are threatened, vulnerable and challenged; only now it is all of humanity that faces a massive problem. Today it is the challenge of finding completely renewable energy and as fast as we can. Once again the solution is space. A number of the great scientists that have been interviewed here in this blog have supported an “Apollo-like” program to launch and build massive orbital solar space stations. Kilometers across, these massive ‘solar panels in space’ can provide almost all the energy needs of humanity before the end of this century. Called Space Solar Power (SSP) or Space Solar Energy (SSE) it is the single best big solution for the planet.
All energy on Earth comes through one process or another from the sun. The sun is the source of all energy in our solar system. By putting several large solar panels in geo-synchronous orbit around the planet and transmitting the solar energy captured back down to earth we can provide energy to Earth for as long as there is the sun. The technology is all available and, during the course of the 20 years it will take to put the first SSP satellite in orbit, it can be further refined. The good news is that the entrepreneurial space companies in the private sector are fast approaching the time when they can create a business of shuttling back and forth into space, delivering all the materials needed for these massive satellites. A true partnership of government direction and funding, supported by for profit companies and a vision of hope, unity and survival on the part of all global citizens
It is clear that this goal needs to be set. The citizens of the world and their governments need to come together around another space based vision that will not only solve the most pressing problem of the time but would also, through the effort, forge the beginning of a new global era of cooperation. Why not! Look what we did after Sputnik.