It All Started with Sputnik
An eminent space historian looks back on the first 50 years of space exploration.
- By Roger D. Launius
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
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For all their accomplishments these robots have not replaced the dream of human movement beyond Earth that astronauts flying to the Moon engendered. Many of us still believe that humanity has only a finite period of time to colonize other worlds before resources on Earth are unable to sustain human migration. Resource depletion—and perhaps environmental degradation, climate change, or nuclear war—could soon close off this opportunity. Carpe diem! Many of the Apollo generation believe that if we do not seize this opportunity while circumstances on Earth permit, interplanetary travel will eventually become impossible.
Whether or not it proves attainable in the future, President George W. Bush’s call on January 14, 2004, to reach the moon and Mars during the next thirty years makes clear that a belief in a limitless frontier in space still motivates us. Thousands may yet heed the siren call of space and walk in the footsteps of “Everyman,” described in a poem by Mary Jean Holmes as the figure who enabled the astronauts to explore the moon. Holmes writes:
For I’m the man who took up tools and laid out the designs.
Of starships, I’m the one who built their sleek and burnished lines.
I’m everyman who ever fashioned cold refined steel
Into the dreams of spaceflight, I’m the one who made them real.
The first fifty years of space exploration were marked by fantastic dreams and a compelling sense of destiny in space, and the thrill of exploration continues into the next half-century. During the second fifty years of the Space Age, who knows what discoveries will alter the course of the future? A limitless future for humanity in space remains the critical but elusive goal of the Space Age. Russian spaceflight pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky said it best, “The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but we cannot remain forever in the cradle.” What Sputnik taught us is that this cradle is not a cage and that we can leave it.