Sputnik, NASA, and Generation Space

Sputnik 1 (NASA)

On Friday, October 4, 1957, a gleaming aluminum sphere, roughly the size of beach ball,  weighing 184 pounds and studded with four whip-like antennae, was lofted into orbit around Earth. Sputnik changed the world in both large and small ways.

That same weekend in Doug’s grandparent’s house, a litter of kittens was born. The firstborn, a tiny black-and-white female, was named Sputnika after the Russian artificial satellite that had grabbed so much of the world’s attention. A little over 1800 miles away—a distance three times greater than the most distant point in Sputnik’s elliptical orbit—in Pasadena, California, a young girl who’d grow up to be a colleague of ours, would go out into the San Rafael hills and try to catch a nighttime glimpse of Sputnik as it passed overhead. Our parents were young adults then, just coming of age in this changing world. When Anna’s sister came home from kindergarten fifteen years later, having made a holiday ornament from a Styrofoam ball, a few toothpicks, and silver spray paint, Anna’s mother declared, “You made Sputnik.”

Our colleague wasn’t the only American looking up into the night sky. All over the United States, people were straining to catch a glimpse of the Russian achievement that blazed and glittered through the heavens. Some, mostly children and young adults, watched the satellite’s trail in awe. Parents, teachers, and leaders, had an altogether different reaction, fear.

Buzz Aldrin on LM Ladder (NASA)

The effect of that fear was writ large across America. Seemingly overnight, K-12 classrooms refocused their curricula to produce future engineers and scientists. Government agencies were realigned. NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, itself founded as a crisis-induced preparation for World War I, was dissolved and reformed as NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on October 1, 1958. So, this week marks two anniversaries that define the beginning of the Space Age: the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, and the formation of NASA, the space agency that would put a human being on the Moon.

Over the next four decades, the space race ignited by Sputnik’s launch would morph from a heated contest in which Russia and the United States each achieved their share of firsts—first human in space (Russian Yuri Gagarin) and first men on the Moon (Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin)—into a global collaboration. In November 1998, a little more that forty years after Sputnik launched and NASA’s founding, the two nations would begin the long-term project of launching the pieces and parts that would be assembled into the International Space Station (ISS), humankind’s first permanent home in space. Fifteen nations have participated in the development, creation, and use of ISS. Russian rockets regularly launch European space probes—for example 2003’s Mars Express—into space. With the 2011 end of the space shuttle program, Russian rockets are charged with delivering all human crew and resupply materials to the ISS.

Curiosity Sees Its Shadow on Mars (NASA)

In August of this year, the Mars rover Curiosity endured “seven minutes of terror” upon entering the Martian atmosphere and landing on its surface. At four minutes into the landing sequence, Curiosity’s main parachute deployed, amazingly while Curiosity was still traveling supersonically and after nine months of space travel. Despite weighing only 100 pounds, the parachute was subjected to forces in excess of 60,000 pounds upon opening. It’s the largest parachute ever used outside of the earth’s atmosphere. But what most impressed us about the rover’s landing was that we could watch, albeit with a fourteen-minute relay delay. The world could watch because a satellite we sent earlier is orbiting Mars and was in the correct position to photograph Curiosity’s parachute opening. Astoundingly, shortly after Curiosity’s landing, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) probe was able send back a photo taken by its HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera.

Think about that for a moment. In just sixty-five years, roughly a single person’s lifespan, humans have gone from having a single artificial satellite awkwardly orbiting their own planet to having satellites orbiting another planet—satellites that are sophisticated enough to be controlled, positioned so that when, yet another, spacecraft goes whizzing past, a photograph of a parachute opening can be taken and relayed back to Earth.

An image of Curiosity descending on its parachute captured from the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter.

Many cultures have an aphorism that expresses the relationship between generations and wealth: one generation to build it, one generation to expand it, one generation to squander it. Lately at Lofty Ambitions we’ve been focused on Generation Space, those individuals born between the launch of Sputnik and the beginning of the shuttle program. The youngest of Generation Space have childhood memories of the first Moon landing and were young adults when Challenger exploded in the sky. In the cultural tale, we’re firmly that second generation in space exploration. We didn’t build the world’s space programs—Sputnik, Apollo, or the Shuttle—but we’ve been charged with taking that intellectual wealth and expanding it. Extending it. Will we bequeath the generation that follows us enough desire, enough passion for space exploration? Will the intellectual, technological, and emotional wealth of the last sixty-five years of space exploration be squandered, or might Mars be next?

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