Sputnik 1: 50 Years Later

[History] | [Commentary]

Plenty of space blogs, organizations, and media outlets are marked last Thursday as the 50 year anniversary of the first artificial satellite in Earth orbit, Sputnik 1. On October 04, 1957 Russia surprised the United States by demonstrating their technological prowess with the successful launch of Sputnik 1. The “artificial moon” did little more than beep:

[Audio file] Sputnik 1 Beeping

but it became the historic launching point for a space race between nations that would culminate with man on the moon.

It is difficult to put into context what Sputnik 1 really marked. We most certainly take space travel for granted now. Prior to October 04, 1957, the best humans could do was touch the edge of space with rockets. Sputnik 1 was fundamentally different, an artifact of mankind that entered, and remained in for three months, a frontier unexplored, by any life form that had ever existed in the billions of years of Earth history. 4,500,000,000 years after the formation of the Earth, perhaps 3,300,000,000 years after the first life forms arose on the planet’s surface, millions of years of primate evolution and tens of thousands of years of modern human development and civilization, we are only 50 years into a presence in outer space.

No other life form in Earth history is known to have directed, let alone created, artifacts like Sputnik 1. Humans alone demonstrate such technological capabilities. We alone can create an artifact that beeps in a near-vacuum to let its creators know it is still there and still functioning, and then find ourselves 50 years later dependent on constellations of much more capable devices that enable activities other life forms cannot even comprehend. Humanity abstracts, humanity acts, humanity adapts and humanity spreads into the great frontiers.

A common question asked in this age of robotic exploration 50 years after the first aluminum technological artifact entered Earth orbit is “Why should we send people into space?” That is the wrong question. The only question is “When?” We will walk again on the moon, and on Mars, and on a myriad other landscapes. Some of us will indeed make our home in space and on worlds other than Earth. We will spread out through the solar system and beyond. Humans will do these things because we repeatedly move forward despite our ramblings about “Why?” Many of us don’t ask why and we just do. A million people ask us why we are doing what we are doing and we simply continue to do. We organize conferences and protests, forge new laws and social constraints, debate for hours, hire politicians to continue the debate ad infinitum, write emotional commentary, and not a single one of these activities stop us from doing the things we keep asking ourselves “Why?” about. We just do, because that is what we do.

Is space too risky, too expensive? Yes. And we will move out into space nonetheless.

Sputnik 1 and technician

Image Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi – “Sputnik 1