COMMENTARY: Commemorating Sputnik launch at 60

The 60th anniversary of the launch of the first human-made satellite brings renewed attention to the challenges of exploring outer space as well as to the legacy of the initial project.

When the Soviet Union and the United States announced an intention to place an artificial satellite into orbit in 1955, both were aiming to make a splash during the International Geophysical Year from July 1957 to December 1958.  At the time, there was brief communication between the nations about cooperating on a single project.  However, with the Cold War in full bloom, such a partnership was quickly rejected.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957 not only was a first for the Soviets, but for humankind.  The world’s first artificial satellite weighed 183 pounds and orbited the globe once every 100 minutes.  By the time the original Sputnik burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, it had circled the Earth more than 1400 times, tracked through a beep by ham radio operators from around the globe.

Though Sputnik was said to have set off the modern version of the “space race,” there wasn’t much competition at first: the Russians followed Sputnik with another such launch, this one carrying the first animal —a dog — to outer space.  After the Americans managed to launch a satellite in January 1958, the Russians scored firsts in placing humans in space, launching from orbit, initial photos of the moon, and first impact onto another world among others.

There is no question that the Sputnik launch caused panic and concern among American citizens.  The technological achievement of the Soviets was seen as a danger and an embarrassment to the United States.  Sputnik’s odyssey led President Eisenhower to establish a Space Advisory Committee in early 1958 to plan for the future.  A year later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created and placed under civilian control.  During the early 1960s, groups like Tomorrow’s Scientists and Engineers were started in the U.S. to provide an impetus to youth to pursue careers in science

Though the decade of the 1960s was enormously eventful as far as space investigation, the decades since seemed to have paled in comparison.

For one, both the Americans and Soviets seemed to lose focus on examining outer space after the U.S. landed the first humans on the moon in July 1969.  Second, the Cold War between the Americans and Soviets lasted for another generation before ending with the disintegration of the communist-controlled government in 1991.

Third, both Russian and American officials have had to deal with the increase in global terrorism.  Finally, American and Russian personnel have sought to balance space exploration with other priorities amid decreasing resources.

Going forward, there is hope in a reinvigorated agenda for space exploration.  For the U.S., a developing partnership between NASA and private companies which build space vehicles seems to be the wave of the future.  For instance, the company SpaceX is already planning human missions to the moon and Mars.

Together, the Americans and Russians appear poised to continue a long and fruitful alliance on the International Space Station (ISS).  Originally populated in November 2000, the ISS has operated constantly since then and has improved upon earlier versions of the space station.

The progress which other nations have made in space science, including China and India, will surely add to the potential and excitement of the next wave of inquiry.

Rather than viewing Sputnik with Cold War glasses, we should congratulate the human race for taking a gigantic step toward the heavens.  Let us resolve to rejuvenate the momentum for exploring outer space that was started six decades ago.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University.  He wrote the entry on “Sputnik I” for The Fifties in America, published by Salem Press.  Dr. Hoff teaches an Honors Seminar on Space: The Final Frontier at DSU.


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