Our First Venture into Space
It was fifty years ago today that the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit. This 23-inch diameter 184-pound beeping ball only remained in orbit three months, and was completely destroyed on re-entry on Jan. 4, 1958. Still its legacy will endure forever.
The launch of Sputnik resonated as the starter's pistol shot in what would become the space race. The policy mavens in Dwight Eisenhower's administration were shocked that the 'backwards' Soviets could have accomplished this feat - and the intelligence community embarrassed that they had no inkling beforehand. This was after all the Cold War Era.
The space race was sold to the public as a great scientific adventure, but it was really fueled by the need for both participating nations to demonstrate their ability to annihilate the other with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Known at the time as Mutual Assured Destruction (appropriately acronym-ed as MAD) the deterrent supposedly kept World War III from breaking out.
Do you remember the news coverage of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo? There was a great emphasis put on how close the returning capsules were to the recovery vessel when they splashed down after re-entry. The reason for this was that it signaled to Soviet military planners how close the American ICBMs could put a warhead to its target. Called Circular Area of Probability (CEP), it was far more important than the yield of the bomb itself.
A liberal viewpoint of the space programs is mixed.
On one hand, the success of the program showed that government is capable of managing and co-ordinating a vast enterprise clearly beyond the reach of private industry. And with everything from weather and communications satellites to GPS the space program did produce real down-to-earth benefits beyond Tang®, Teflon™ and Velcro®. And whether you appreciate it or not the knowledge returned from planetary probes like Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, etc. has been invaluable. The Hubble Space Telescope alone has vastly enhanced our knowledge of the universe. (turns out it isn't really 6,000 years old - what a surprise!)
On the other hand, the space race caused Eisenhower to funnel vast sums of money into the Military Industrial Complex that he so distrusted. The same companies that produced fighter jets, guided missiles and of course ICBMs were the only entities set up to make civilian rockets - so they made out very well indeed. Now it seems like those corporations are exerting so much influence that they threaten civil liberties and even democracy itself, as Ike warned.
This anniversary has caused me to cast my memory back to a time that was perhaps more innocent than today. Still, in the background were forces that led perhaps inevitably to the current predicament. I'll let Dwight David Eisenhower have the last words.
"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."Seriously, this guy was a Republican? Really?
"If men can develop weapons that are so terrifying as to make the thought of global war include almost a sentence for suicide, you would think that man's intelligence and his comprehension... would include also his ability to find a peaceful solution."
"I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it."
More from Space.com:
Sputnik's Space Age Legacy for Humanity
The Scientific Legacy
Top 10 Sputniks - the Many Faces of the First Artificial Satellite
Fifty Years in Space Quiz
The Road Ahead
TAGS: Sputnik, Space Program, Cold War, Military Industrial Complex