Saturday, October 6, 2007

The 50th Anniversary of Sputnik

I'm a couple of days late in commenting on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik. To my own dismay I've realized I was too busy to think about it, although the historical significance of humankind's first venture into space cannot, in my opinion, be overestimated -- and as I've said often before, the launch of Sputnik struck me at the time as providential. I'd then believed for quite a while (and still believe, despite the long hiatus) that putting human energy toward the effort of getting into space is the only way of averting a catastrophic global war. I suppose I overlooked the date this week because after more than 50 years of focusing on the importance of space, I have become disillusioned by our lack of progress toward establishment of a permanent presence on other worlds. But in a way I am glad that I didn't post about the anniversary sooner, for I now have the opportunity to comment on the excellent op-ed by Charles Krauthammer in today's Washington Post (also syndicated elsewhere, including my local newspaper).

"We had no idea how lucky we were with Sputnik," Krauthammer says, and goes on to point out that it led not only to Apollo and the moon, but to to other major technological advances such as ARPANET, which became the Internet, and to the establishment of the principle that orbital space is not national territory. But the main point of his op-ed is something less widely recognized, something that I myself fully grasped only a year ago, and commented upon in an article at my website which is now also included among the reports at the Lifeboat Foundation. The public's lack of willingness to proceed with space exploration is not mere apathy. It is fear, I suggested, "that has been holding the majority back, not conscious fear, but the stirring of an unconscious recognition that the universe is very much vaster, and more scary, than most people like to think."

Before Sputnik, Krauthammer points out, "We always assumed that one step would create the hunger for the next -- ever outward from Earth orbit to the moon to Mars and beyond. Not so. It took only 12 years to go from Sputnik to the moon, which we jumped about on for a brief interlude and then, amazingly, abandoned. There are technological, budgetary and political reasons to explain this. But the most profound is psychological." Those of us with enthusiam for space and a longing to see humankind venture further have been slow to realize this, as for us, the attitude predominant in our society is hard to understand. And yet Krauthammer is right when he says that the famous photo "Earthrise" did not just spur the environmental movement. "With surpassing irony," he observes, "it created at the very dawn of the space age a longing not for space but for home."

"This is perhaps to be expected for a 200,000-year-old race of beings leaving its crib for the first time," he declares. And it is, of course. It's surprising, I guess, that we did not expect it, and have interpreted it as a discouraging sign that humankind may be doomed to eventual extinction through dependence on the limited resources of a single world. To accept the thought of long delay isn't easy for those of us who are no longer young enough to see society's outlook change within our own lifetime. Yet I hope and believe that Krauthammer is also right when he concludes, "We will, however, outgrow that fear. It was 115 years from Columbus to the Jamestown colony. It will take about that same span of time for a new generation -- ours is too bound to Earth -- to go out and not look back."


Ann Downer said...

Hi, Sylvia. Nice to see you here, and I'm looking forward to keeping up with Toward Tomorrow.

Panzermeister said...

Sputnik is the little spark (or maybe a big lighter...) though the ignition of a space colonization is so slow. But ignition did well and I agree about the diversion from atomic war: it was not a waste, but maybe help us to reach beyond the autodestruction limit of our advanced (but not so much)civilization (see the Drake equation...)
Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurrah!