Friday, October 04, 2013

Another day when everything changed...

If you follow along here, you'll remember that last month I wrote about how when history takes a decisive turn is not always readily apparent at the time. That usually, it takes awhile for us to catch up with events and realize that the world in permanently different in some way.

That's not necessarily the case with an event that took place on October 4, 1957.

That was the day the Space Age began, with the first successful launch of an artificial satellite. The USSR (now Russia) launched Sputnik 1 that day, taking the world a bit by surprise. The US had been working toward such a launch for awhile, and it was an embarrassment, in the middle of the Cold War, that the Soviets got there first. It wasn't that long before the Americans finally made a successful launch when it put Explorer I into orbit on January 31, 1958, just less than four months later.

Still, for nearly a month, until Sputnik stopped broadcasting its radio signals, which any amateur radio operator could listen to, on October 26, the Soviet satellite continued to taunt the Americans. At least, when Explorer did get into orbit it did something besides beep - it verified the existence of a radiation belt around the Earth, the Van Allen belt.

Sputnik's launch caused more than embarrassment in the United States. The fact that the Soviets were able to launch a satellite into orbit meant something else, that they could also had a rocket that could carry a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world. This was frightening news. But, really, the embarrassment was more productive than the fear of nuclear war. That embarrassment, that the Soviets had done something before the US and, so far, better than the US, meant that we had to get on the stick and up our game. By February 7, 1958, just days after the US finally got Explorer into space, the US government had launched something else, The Advanced Research Projects Agency, under the Department of Defense, as an effort to regain the lead in science and technology from the Soviets. By the middle of 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, had also been founded. Additionally, new educational initiatives were put in place to advance education in science and technology so that we would not again be bested by the Soviets.

So, yes, things changed dramatically following on the launch of that 23-inch-diameter beeping sphere. Three and a half years later, on April 12, 1961, the Soviets put the first human into space, with an American following less than a month later. Once again, the Soviets got there first and better, with Yuri Gagarin orbiting the earth, while Alan Shepard just got a sub-orbital flight. However, the US sent John Glenn up for three orbits on February 20, 1962, and the Americans pretty much led the space race from then on. It only took until July 20, 1969, to put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

Well, until recently.

The US currently has no operating space vehicle capable of carrying humans into space. We rely on the Russians to ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station. This makes me sad...not that it's the Russians doing this (or that China has also recently, so the reports say, put people into space), but that my country does not care enough about the exploration of the cosmos, to give sufficient funds to the effort to advance human exploration of the solar system and the universe.

This is part of a trend in our culture to discount science generally, at least partly for ideological reasons. I have my suspicious about why this is so, but that's another topic for another day. For now, lets just say that I believe that if we continue, as a country, to belittle and degrade real science in general in the way that some of our politicians have been doing in an attempt to advance their own agenda (climate change denialists, and creationist and intelligent design theorists, I'm looking at you), it is going to come back and bite us in the ass, and it isn't going to be very comfortable.

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