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Emily Gertz, 4 Oct 07

Today, October 4, is the 50-year anniversary of the launch of Sputnik by the USSR -- the first satellite launched by humans into space. Having spent my undergrad years studying Soviet-American relations, I feel a bit of a warm glow as folks from all over jump into re-analysing the dynamics of the Space Race phase of the Cold War -- it's like revisiting a fascinating phase of my teen years.

The Space Race, for all its tensions, led to a huge expansion of human knowledge, from engineering to astronomy and astrophysics, about our solar system and on our own planet, and even our very bodies, that continues to reverb into the present.

Here's a little sampling of what's caught my eye online during this anniversary of humans (and the occasional dog, chimp, or microscopic organism) in space:

Geoff Brumfiel, Whereas Soviet bureaucrats were initially disinterested in the launch, Western scientists and politicians seized on Sputnik as an icon of a growing ‘red menace’. It was “more proof of growing Communist superiority in the all-important missile field,” Senator Stuart Symington (Democrat, Missouri) told the New York Times two days after Sputnik was sent into orbit.

What the Soviets had that the United States didn’t, commentators said, was a strong base of science education, from which achievements such as Sputnik could arise. Without better education in the United States, added US physicist Elmer Hutchisson, “our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction”.

David Pescovitz, boingboing: In honor of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, IEEE Spectrum interviewed science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke. In the October 1945 issue of Wireless World, Clarke forecasted the idea of geostationary satellites in a paper titled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?" From IEEE Spectrum: ...SPECTRUM: A lot of what was achieved at the beginning of the Space Age—from Sputnik to the first landing on the moon—was spurred on by the rivalry that was the Cold War. Without that competition, do you think the human impetus to reach for space has slowed somewhat?

CLARKE: Launching Sputnik and landing humans on the Moon were all political decisions, not scientific ones, although scientists and engineers played a lead role in implementing those decisions. (I have only recently learned, from his long-time secretary Carol Rosin, that Wernher von Braun used my 1952 book, The Exploration of Space, to convince President Kennedy that it was possible to go to the Moon.) As William Sims Bainbridge pointed out in his 1976 book, The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study, space travel is a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century. But thanks to the ambition and genius of von Braun and Sergei Korolev, and their influence upon individuals as disparate as Kennedy and Khrushchev, the Moon—like the South Pole—was reached half a century ahead of time.

I hope that nations can at last see better reasons for exploring space, and that future decisions would be informed by intelligence and reason, not the macho-nationalism that fuelled the early Space Race.

Alexis Madrigal, Wired Science: Sputnik Mania is a new film made to coincide with Thursday's 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik I satellite...Among the many interesting clips available at Sputnik Mania's website are Soviet promo footage of the 184 pound satellite that seems straight out of Bioshock, pre-orbit John Glenn appearing on Name That Tune three hours after the satellite launch, declassified H-bomb footage, and testimony from some of the many people who poured into the streets to watch Sputnik pass in the night. Frank O'Rourke of Oklahoma City describes the scene. "Just at the time the Russians had said, a tiny light appeared at the southwestern horizon and glided over our heads. Some of us cried. I stood in awe."

Chris Mooney, Fifty years ago today, the Soviet launch of Sputnik changed the United States forever--propelling science to the center of policymaking and launching a tradition of well-informed governance that, unfortunately, has since been in a woeful decline.

Luckily at least one presidential candidate wants to do something about it: Hillary Clinton, who will be giving a speech today on science policymaking at the Carnegie Institution. According to the AP she plans to unveil the following proposals:

  • Expand human and robotic space exploration and speed development of vehicles to would replace the space shuttle.
  • Launch a space-based climate change initiative to combat global warming.
  • Create a $50-billion strategic energy fund to research ways to boost energy efficiency and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Comply with a legal requirement that the executive branch issue a national assessment on climate change every four years. She would also expand the assessment to reflect how U.S. regions and economic sectors are responding to the challenges posed by climate change.
  • Name an assistant to the president for science and technology, a position that was eliminated in the Bush White House.
  • Re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment.

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