The Space Age is officially 60 years old as the world celebrates the 1957 launch of the former USSR’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. And a look back finds the world far different than maybe any other six-decade span in human history.
That Friday night on Oct. 4, 1957 had Americans looking skyward as radio news and evening newspapers announced the Communist nation had orbited an artificial moon around the Earth. Beeping a prerecorded noise heard by ham radio operators, Sputnik, translated “traveler” was announcing to the world that a new age had begun.
America was stunned. This was the height of the Cold War when nuclear weapons proliferated to a frightening standoff between the USA and USSR.
Though only 23 inches in diameter and weighing 184 pounds with no scientific value, just the thought of the Soviets having the ability to cross over the USA from outer space sent a chill down the spine of America’s Department of Defense, and outright fear among citizens.
A month later Nov. 3rd the Russians backed up their ability to enter outer space by launching a living dog into space aboard a complex, one-ton space ship Sputnik 2. The female “mutnik” named Laika wasn’t orbited to return, but the path for human to enter space was clearly laid down.
It took America until the following January 31st to match the feat of sending their own satellite into Earth orbit, Explorer 1. Unlike the simple electric tone emitted by Sputnik 1, Explorer had real scientific instruments aboard and discovered the Van Allen radiation belt.
Following more Soviet space launches, the U.S. Congress formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Oct. 1, 1958. The Space Race was on! And the prize was the Moon, 240,000 miles away.
Sputnik transmitted for 21 days until batteries ran out, and on Jan. 4, 1958, it burned up reentering the atmosphere after completing 1,440 orbits of Earth. Explorer 1 stayed in orbit until 1970.
In the beginning, NASA’s every move was followed in the media of our open democracy, while the Soviet space program was enshrouded in complete secrecy. Announcements of Russian space accomplishments were released by the government news service called TASS. Only the successes and failures it could not cover up reached America’s shores.
The Soviet space program became a propaganda arm of Primer Nikita Khrushchev, and he wanted his cosmonauts to show their superiority over the US astronauts. Khrushchev demanded some dangerous missions that included the first spacewalk (trouble getting back inside), the first female in space (for three days, more than all U.S. Mercury flights combined), and the first three-man crew (in the two-man Voskhod spacecraft). The Soviet Premier even arranged the marriage of the third man in space Andrian Nikolayev, deceased, to lady cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, giving her hand a way in public ceremony!
Meanwhile, the American space program made its share of mistakes, and could have benefited from the knowledge of Soviet blunders they repeated.
In the post-World War II 1950s, America had captured German rocket scientist Werner von Braun and he was creating rockets of destruction for the Army. If allowed free reign of his talents, Von Braun could have orbited a payload on his Redstone rocket maybe as early as 1955. But President Dwight Eisenhower wanted our first satellite to coincide with the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year celebrations. And when our Communist rivals did it first, America was caught off guard and its citizens didn’t like being behind.
All through the 1960s, the cloaked USSR space program claimed superiority over the USA, but that was far from the facts. And when three astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968, America had won the Moon Race without even landing. NASA had demonstrated that Von Braun’s mammoth Saturn V was reliable for a moon landing, while secretly, the USSR’s moon rocket, Nova, had blown up at least twice (killing dozens of top technicians the first time).
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their Apollo 11 moon ship at the shores of the frozen lava sea called Mare Tranquility, the Soviets claimed they weren’t going to the Moon and were instead interested in earth-orbiting space stations.
The truth behind the propaganda of the Soviet space program was slow to come out in the public eye. But it began in the 1990s during the mutual training of astronauts and cosmonauts for the nine Space Shuttle missions to Russian space station Mir.
One of the first revelations was about the celebrated first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin—he didn’t land with his Vostok 1 spacecraft, parachuting safely in an open field. For more than two decades it was not known that the first seven Vostok spacecraft deployed parachutes after a fiery reentry and at 70,000 feet the cosmonaut ejected and floated on a parachute to Earth. That’s because retrorockets to break the spacecraft’s impact with ground weren’t perfected until the two-man Voskhod and three-man Soyuz spacecrafts. NASA landed its Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spaceships in the ocean.
Other facts surfaced about failed spacecraft rendezvous, problems with the one-man moonship Zond, and the disasters of the gigantic Nova rocket with a 36 engine first stage.
One thing was for certain: the USSR wanted to be first on the Moon just as bad as the USA. But where peaceful exploration was America’s motivation, it was the military high ground that drove the Communist moon program.
Incredibly the Moon Race happened in the first decade of the Space Age, and no human has returned since 1972. Unmanned probes have taken us back to the Moon, and to all the planets, a half-dozen asteroids and comets—even distant Pluto.
Arguably the greatest achievement in 60 years of space exploration is the $100 billion International Space Station and it’s 14-nation partnership. Largely built by 35 Space Shuttle missions and occupied 15 years by Expedition crews of up to 6 people, it will be funded at least through 2022.
The Space Age has transformed Earth into a wireless world, satellites and ground technology giving humans anywhere instant information about things that matter and other things that don’t.
And just where will the world be in another six decades of space exploration? Maybe humans will be inhabitants of three worlds by returning to the Moon and conquering Mars? One thing for certain: the human spirit will continually explore.