The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

The 50th anniversary of Sputnik is a time to reflect, but, perhaps more importantly, focus on avoiding the mistakes of the past. (credit: NASA)

Looking back versus looking ahead

It is human nature to use milestone anniversaries—5, 10, 20, 25, 50 years and so on—of major events as opportunities to look back and reflect on their significance. How have these events shaped our lives over the years, and how has their influence changed over time? It’s a chance to look back at those things that altered the trajectory of our countries, cultures, and civilizations as the direct human connections to those events fade over time.

So when we look back at the Space Age—which, by general accord, started 50 years ago today with the launch of Sputnik—what impressions are we left with? For most people with some interest in space, two seemingly contradictory perceptions emerge: wonder and disappointment. Both are understandable, but at least one of those feelings needs to be tempered if we—and in particular the United States—are to continue to make progress in space.

Looking back at what has been accomplished in the first 50 years of the Space Age, it is hard not to feel a sense of wonder and awe. During that time, nearly 500 people have gone into space from dozens of countries, and 12 of them have had the privilege of walking on the Moon. Other spacecraft has explored the far corners of the solar system, from Mercury to beyond Neptune, with several spacecraft speeding off into the interstellar void. Other spacecraft have provided images of the distant reaches of the universe, helping astronomers understand our origins. Still others look back at the Earth, helping meteorologists forecast the weather to a greater precision than ever while aiding other scientists assess the long-term trends in the planet’s climate.

Looking back at what has been accomplished in the first 50 years of the Space Age, it is hard not to feel a sense of wonder and awe.

Perhaps the most revolutionary advances in the last half-century provided by space are those that most people don’t think about when space comes to mind. Satellites helped revolutionize communications, providing capabilities straight out of science fiction fifty years ago. However, people aren’t thinking about that when they install a DIRECTV dish at home or get satellite radio in their cars: they’re looking forward to watching any NFL game they want on Sunday or listening to an uncensored Howard Stern. Likewise, people don’t think about space when they buy a GPS receiver: they just want to get from point A to point B without suffering the ignominy of having to stop and ask for directions. Military reconnaissance satellites, taken for granted today, provided the superpowers with a better capability of keeping tabs on one another—and, in the process, perhaps making it a bit more likely we survived the Cold War.

However, even when taking those successful, if often invisible, space advances in mind, many space enthusiasts are still left with an often profound sense of disappointment. Even with all that we have done, it seems like we could have done so much more. After all, given the revolutionary advances of the early years of the Space Age—less than 12 years after Sputnik, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon—so much more seemed possible. The last several decades have seen an endless array of visions of our future in space: giant space stations, bases on the Moon, missions to Mars, space colonies at L-5, and more. All of these have yet to be realized, yet at times they have seemed to be tantalizingly in reach, if only we have a little more money and a little more vision.

So we have, for the last 35 years or so, been victims of our early successes in space, unable to recapture the magic sparked by the launch of Sputnik. Perhaps, if the launch of Sputnik had been greeted in many corners not with alarm but instead with muted congratulations, or even a shrug, things would have been different: we would not have made the rapid early advances of the late 1950s and 1960s, but instead a more gradual—and more sustainable—progression of achievements. However, the geopolitical situation of the era, not to mention domestic politics in the US, made such an approach untenable.

The Space Race was an intoxicating time for anyone interested in space, but the hangover has been painful and enduring.

Today, people are looking again to geopolitics as a means to motivate space efforts. The last few weeks have seen a resumption of claims in the US that the country is somehow in danger of falling behind China or other nations in space. In response to a question after a speech in Washington two weeks ago, NASA administrator Mike Griffin said, “I personally believe that China will be back on the Moon before we are. I think when that happens, Americans will not like it, but they will just have to not like it.” (Nit-pickers will note that China can’t go back to the Moon before us, since they have yet to go there in the first place.) In an essay published Wednesday in the Congressional newspaper The Hill, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison warned that “we are on the verge of another Sputnik moment” because of China’s perceived lunar ambitions as well as the imminent “gap” in US manned spaceflight capability between the retirement of the shuttle and the introduction of the Orion crew exploration vehicle. “Our national security,” she claimed, “depends on our ability to explore space without relying on nations who may not always have our best interests at heart.”

The problem here, of course, is that the geopolitical environment of 2007 is far different from 1957. Space is hardly the only arena of technological competition, or even the most important one. (Moreover, what made Sputnik such a concern, and space therefore such a key issue, was that the same booster that could place a satellite in orbit could also be used to rain nuclear terror from the skies—a capability China already has today.) The “Space Race” between the US and USSR was a race to do things that had never been done before: place satellites and then people in space, and eventually land people on the Moon. The second time around the race doesn’t seem so compelling. And there is the issue of sustainability, as aptly demonstrated over the last half-century: the Space Race was an intoxicating time for anyone interested in space, but the hangover has been painful and enduring.

Perhaps it’s time to stop looking in the rearview mirror at what we did, or could have done, in space, and instead look ahead to what we can and should do in space over the next 50 years. While we have made a lot of progress in the last five decades, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done if we wish to take full advantage of what space—from low Earth orbit to the Moon and beyond—has to offer. Space transportation remains the most critical, and weakest, link in chain: the rockets in use today can trace their lineages back, in many cases, to designs first developed in the 1950s. (The Soyuz rocket that will launch the next crew to the ISS in less than a week is a direct descendent of the R-7 that launched Sputnik.) These vehicles tend to be expensive, operate infrequently, and have reliability rates that would be considered unacceptable in most other modes of transportation. These characteristics therefore shape what we can do in space, and how, and thus anything to improve these characteristics can create tremendous leverage on other aspects of space exploration and development.

The temptation is strong, on this anniversary, to worry about “another Sputnik”. However, like the old line about generals always fighting the last war, we must be careful to avoid running the last Space Race.

Frequent, reliable, inexpensive access to space—be it through new types of conventional rockets, reusable vehicles derived from the suborbital vehicles under development today to serve the nascent space tourism market, or even exotic solutions like space elevators—can help create an infrastructure in low Earth orbit, and then elsewhere in cislunar space, in the form of power, propellant depots, and more. This can make it easier for the US or any other nation to go (back) to the Moon in a sustainable manner, as well as enable any number of other commercial, scientific, or other applications.

The temptation is strong, on this anniversary, to worry about “another Sputnik”. However, like the old line about generals always fighting the last war, we must be careful to avoid running the last Space Race. Competing with another country, or countries, on lunar exploration risks repeating the last fifty years, with the heartache about missed opportunities and failed goals that it brings. If we want the next fifty years in space to be better than the last fifty, then it’s time to start looking at space, including what we should do there, why, and how, a little differently. That may enable us to better appreciate the wonder of spaceflight and forget the disappointments of the past.