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Space Exploration, 50 Years Later

In this image made from NASA TV, a new set of solar panels is fully unfurled outside the international space station orbiting Earth, Tuesday, June 12, 2007.
By William Harwood
CBS News Space Consultant

Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, a 183-pound satellite the size of a basketball that did little more than beep out its location as it flew through space.

But that modest satellite, trivial by today's standards, kick-started the Space Age and along with it, the Cold War competition that ultimately put 12 Americans on the moon, led to development of the space shuttle - arguably the most complex vehicle ever built - and prompted the U.S.-led exploration of the solar system.

The Beep That Changed Lives

Homer Hickam, author of "Rocket Boys: A Memoir" (made into the movie "October Sky"), was 14 years old, growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia, on Oct. 4, 1957. His reaction reflected the wonder of the world at the Soviet Union's achievement.

"I read in the paper that Sputnik was actually going to fly over Coalwood and I couldn't imagine that something that big and wonderful would fly over our little town," he told CBS Radio. "So I told my Mom I was going to watch it and she told the neighbor lady and the neighbor lady on down the line there and the next thing I knew we had all these people in the back yard who had come to help little Sonny Hickam, as I was known then, watch Sputnik fly over.

"My dad walked out and said 'Elsie, why are all these people in our yard?' And she said, 'they've come to help Sonny watch Sputnik fly over.' He put on his hat and went up to the mine and said that President Eisenhower would never allow anything Russian to fly over Coalwood. But along Sputnik came and I was so impressed. If God himself had flown over Coalwood at that moment in his golden chariot I would not have been more impressed. And I knew at that moment that somehow I wanted to be part of that great movement into space that Sputnik represented."

Hickam, who went on to a distinguished career that included a long stint as an engineer in the space shuttle program, was not alone.
Sputnik inspired an entire generation and changed American society in ways that were unimaginable just a few short years before.

One man it had an enormous impact on was John Glenn, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts who became the first American in orbit and followed a distinguished Senate career with a space shuttle flight in 1997.

"I think most Americans just assumed that the U.S. was superior in every way to the Soviet Union," he told CBS, recalling the Sputnik announcement. But the Russians "were bringing thousands of students in from Third World countries, giving them an education, sending them back home, most of the time as doctrinaire communists. And so the jury was still out at that time as to what the wave of the future was going to be."

Citing "McCarthy's antics in the Senate," Glenn said Americans "were not without our own fears of the communist future and here all at once they were doing things that we were not able to do. And so it was sort of a jolt."

A Race, Then A Leap

Spurred by Sputnik and smarting from early Soviet space successes, the United States set about creating what would become the world's most successful space program, developing the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft that ultimately carried a dozen Americans to the surface of the moon.

To support the growing space program, America invested in loans and scholarships to attract more interest in science and engineering and financed wide-ranging research that led to a steady stream of technology "spinoffs" that worked their way into all aspects of American society.

Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" on July 20, 1969, ended the space race that Sputnik began just 12 years earlier. But by that point, the space programs of Russia and the United States were part of each nation's cultural identity and sources of deep national pride.

The Russians focused on building and operating a series of space stations in low-Earth orbit and sending unmanned probes to Venus and Mars. NASA built Skylab and the space shuttle, and ultimately won approval to construct a large "international" space station. Along the way, NASA and the Russians staged the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, a harbinger of cooperation to come.

To The Edge Of Interstellar Space - And Of Human Knowledge

But manned space operations were just part of Sputnik's legacy.

Robotic emissaries have now visited every major planet in the solar system and spacecraft currently are in route to Mercury, the dwarf planet Pluto and the two largest members of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Two rovers are exploring the surface of Mars, NASA and European satellites orbit the red planet and the U.S. space agency plans to launch a nuclear-powered Mars rover before the end of the decade.

The Cassini probe is beaming back a steady stream of pictures and priceless data from ringed Saturn and its enigmatic moon, Titan, and the twin Voyage spacecraft, after flying by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 1970s and 80s, are currently looking for the boundary that marks the transition between the sun's influence and interstellar space.

Looking further afield, the hugely successful Hubble Space Telescope and other major space observatories have revolutionized astronomers'
knowledge about the birth, evolution and fate of the universe.

Fifty years ago, the fate of the universe was little more than a question mark. But in a single generation, largely as a direct result of the space program, we now have strong evidence the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, that it began with a big bang and that its expansion is accelerating, not slowing down as previously believed.

We now know that 75 percent of everything in the universe is a mysterious repulsive "dark energy" driving the acceleration of the universal expansion and that 20 percent is made up of equally mysterious "dark matter," not a single particle of which has ever been seen. Only about 5 percent of the entire universe is made up of the normal matter we see around us.

One could argue that humanity's knowledge of itself and its place in the universe has moved further in the past 50 years than it did in the previous 500.

Falling Far Short Of "2001: A Space Odyssey"

But many would also argue humanity has failed to capitalize on the early promise of the space program. When Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" came out in 1968 - the year before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon - it was not considered unreasonable to assume that moon bases, huge space stations and commercial flights to and from low-earth orbit and the moon would be commonplace by the turn of the century.

The reality, of course, is vastly different: We have a hugely expensive, much more modest space station, and a manned space shuttle that cost more than expected and never lived up to the promise of affordable, routine access to space. While visionaries hope to stage commercial sub-orbital flights in the next few years, commercial access to orbit and beyond remains a distant dream.

The high cost of space exploration and shifting national priorities forced NASA and its Russian counterparts to merge their manned space programs in the early 1990s.

Now, 50 years after Sputnik, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts are living in space full-time aboard the growing lab complex, a level of cooperation that would have been difficult to envision at the dawn of the space age. Indeed, some see U.S.-Russian cooperation on the high frontier as the major accomplishment of the two space programs, not any individual triumphs.

The Future Of Space

America is changing its focus once again. Largely as a result of the 2003 Columbia disaster, the agency has been directed by the Bush administration to finish the space station and retire the shuttle by the end of 2010. At the same time, NASA has been ordered to build new rockets and more modest manned spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit and, eventually, back to the moon.

But the administration did not give NASA significant new money to pay for the moon program - the funds will come primarily from money that currently goes to shuttle/station operations - and as things now stand, there will be at least a five-year gap between the end of shuttle flights in 2010 and the maiden flight of the shuttle's replacement, a wingless capsule known as Orion.

During that five years - for the first time in the history of the U.S. space program - American astronauts will be forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz capsules to reach the very space station American taxpayers financed. The irony of America's dependence on its former Cold War rival is not lost on NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.

"I think that's a concern," he told CBS in a recent interview. "I think it's an unseemly position for the United States to be in, quite honestly, and I think we will come to regret it."

But Griffin also believes space exploration will endure. So does Arthur C. Clarke, the British science fiction writer and visionary who came up with the idea for communications satellites in 1945 and who wrote the short story that inspired "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Writing in 1999, Clarke predicted the 100th anniversary of Sputnik in
2057 will be "celebrated by humans on Earth, the Moon, Mars, Europa, Ganymede and Titan, and in orbit around Venus, Neptune and Pluto."

If that prediction seems overly optimistic, remember that Americans landed on the moon just eight years after NASA's first sub-orbital 15-minute Mercury flight. Regardless of how the history of space exploration plays out in the 21st century, one thing is certain: It will always begin with Sputnik.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.