The Space Age turns 60!

4 October 2017

Wednesday


Sixty years ago today, on 04 October 1957, Sputnik 1 (Спутник-1) became the first object of human manufacture to orbit the Earth. Thus began the Space Race, driven by Cold War competition, but transcending that Cold War competition and being transformed into a triumph of the human spirit (not to mention being a triumph of human engineering, but here engineering expresses the human spirit).

A few years ago, on 12 April 2011, I wrote A Half Century of Human Spaceflight to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in orbit around the Earth; in just a few years, 2021, we will be able to celebrate sixty years of human spaceflight. The anniversaries of all the important dates for the technologies that have shaped the world today remind us how rapidly the world was transformed from thousands of years of settled agriculturalism, preceded by tens of thousands of years of hunter-gatherer nomadism, into the technological civilization of today. Progress has been dizzying, and the very institutions of civilization that brought us to this point have not yet caught up with the changes wrought by them; even now they labor under the strain of this forced social change.

We are still in the very early stages of the Space Age; the inflection point of this developmental sequence has not yet arrived, so we are today still in the same shallow end of the exponential growth curve that was initiated sixty years ago. In the earliest years of the Space Age (and the Space Race, since the two coincided at least until 1969, when the Space Race as “won”) it became commonplace to speak of the “conquest of space,” as though our first tentative, exploratory foray beyond the atmosphere of our homeworld were a triumphant affirmation of human power. Carl Sagan was nearer to the truth when he wrote in Cosmos that our first few decades of space exploration have been only an incremental step in an endless journey:

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. These aspirations are not, I think, irreverent, although they may trouble whatever gods may be.”

It is likely that we will continue on in the shallow end of the space exploration curve for some time yet. Perched as we are on the edge of the cosmos, able to see far more than we can explore, like Stout Cortez, silent upon a peak in Darien, it is something akin to madness for those of us who wish to explore, but whose lives will remain Earthbound. We must learn patience, even if that is the least of our virtues. I may not live to see the inflection point, but I know that it is out there, and that the task for us is to keep civilization moving in that direction so that the inflection point will be reached, and that we do not fail before we have reached it. To take heart during this sometimes demoralizing struggle, we have the vision before us of what civilization can become when it is liberated from planetary endemism. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

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The Space Age began with Sputnik.

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4 Responses to “The Space Age turns 60!”

  1. James Groenewald said

    Thank you.
    Fortunately, our minds grasp more than our arms and hands.

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