Scientific American: The Future of Space Exploration
The launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite half a century ago inaugurated the Space Age. What comes next?
When people talk about a moment being burned into memory, they usually mean it in a negative way: President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Princess Diana’s fatal car crash, 9/11. The launch of Sputnik 50 years ago this month was different. It certainly had its negative side: no one likes to wake up to find that your nuclear adversary has thrown a shiny ball over your head and that you can’t do a thing about it. But the dawn of the Space Age was also a hopeful event. Visionaries celebrated humanity’s long-awaited climb out of its cradle, and pragmatists soon savored the benefits of communications and weather satellites. Many of today’s scientists and engineers trace their life’s passions to that fast-moving dot in the night sky.
“In his millennia of looking at the stars, man has never faced so exciting a challenge as the year 1957 has suddenly thrust upon him,” astronomers Fred L. Whipple and J. Allen Hynek wrote in the December 1957 issue of Scientific American.
The evolution of the space program continues to be dramatic. In a decade or so, it will be hardly recognizable. The shuttle, which for all its faults is the most sophisticated flying machine ever built, will be a thing of the past. NASA is moving to the Constellation system, which is basically a high-tech dusting off of the Apollo rockets and capsules. Whereas the shuttle is an ambitious spacecraft with modest goals (providing regular delivery-van service to orbit), Constellation is a modest spacecraft with ambitious goals: building a moon base, visiting an asteroid and eventually establishing human settlements on Mars. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin is steering a slow but steady course that he argues can be sustained on a limited budget—an approach that many commentators wish his predecessors had pursued 30 years ago. ...