Thursday, January 18, 2007

Musings on a Traveling Companion

In 1957, the U.S.S.R. stunned the world by launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. Reacting to the potential of its radio beeping, the U.S. accelerated its own research and began a massive investment in space exploration. A year after Sputnik's launch, Explorer I launched in response. For the next several years, each nation claimed bragging rights in the media as they leap-frogged each other in technology and accomplishment. The ensuing "space race" captured the imagination of the American public. Science fiction gained a boost in readership and many children (including myself) dreamed of becoming astronauts. Tang became a household name and Space Food Sticks became a staple of school lunches.

Sputnik, Russian for "traveling companion," launched several years before I was born. I learned about it due to an overwhelming interest in the Apollo program. I was five years old when Eagle landed at Tranquility Base and I watched every moment on TV. I also devoured all space related information I could lay my hands on. I could name astronauts, cosmonauts, mission specs, and other details the way some guys can name all the players, positions, and stats for sports teams.

(I was such a "space cadet" that I got up at 3:00 o'clock in the morning to listen to a live radio broadcast of the launch of Soyuz 19, the Soviet craft involved in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission. The broadcast was in Russian, so I didn't understand a word of it, but when I heard the deep-throated rumble of the launch, my mind's eye watched the rocket slowly gain power and rise into the sky, like a regal phoenix taking wing.)

It's said that China successfully launched and tested a satellite killer last week; they were able to target and then destroy an "aging" weather satellite (launched eight years ago). Today, the headlines report that the U.S. and other countries have expressed concern over the technology which "violates the spirit" of multinational space exploration.

The U.S. investment in space technology after Sputnik came out of fear, fear that the Soviet Union would be able to rain nuclear weapons from space. I wonder if we'll see a new investment in space technology and research. I wonder if our leaders now worry about losing the communication and GPS satellites that underpin our modern communication infrastructure. I wonder if President Bush (or his successor) will offer a speech similar to John F. Kennedy's famous challenge that launched the Apollo project.

If we do see such a resurgence, I confess to having mixed feelings about it. As a life-long fan of space exploration (and science fiction), I would cheer a renewed effort to explore our local solar neighborhood and find ways to exploit the natural resources available off-world. As a citizen of this world, however, I see the need for social investment, too.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could actually make the American dream real for all its citizens? No, I don't mean buy a house for everyone. However, it would be nice to have universal healthcare, fully-funded educational programs, and safety nets that help the disaffected and unfortunate. It would be nice to settle the political feuds now rocking the headlines and help move the entire planet toward a more humane and universally accepting point of view.

Perhaps such a view could be fostered by a shared vision of exploration, much the same way a similar vision helped sustain the country through the civil rights debate, the Vietnam War, Anita Bryant, Laetril, and other social upheavals. Perhaps. For that to happen, however, we would need leaders able to articulate visions for all people, not just a select (and rich) few. Perhaps the forthcoming U.S. Presidential Election will showcase and elevate such leaders. Perhaps.

(By the way, this article has an interesting point of view regarding Sputnik and this link lets you hear the sounds that galvanized a nation.)

Photo credit: NASA


Blogger THE Michael said...

It's only a matter of time before we enter into a new cold war, only this time with the Chinese, only this time, it won't be so tilted in our favor. We are funding the Chinese military via Walmart, and now you can get some pretty scary technology right off the shelf.

The Chinese love it that we have the Middle East to keep us occupied. When they finally decide to make their move on Taiwan, it won't be like the Cuban Missle crisis......they WON'T back down, and we won't be in a position to make them.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

I enjoyed reading more about your childhood fascination with space and your early inklings into geekhood! I also like your dream of a more humane and just political landscape ... that is in my prayers as well. Much love, JP

10:10 PM  

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