Sputnik

It’s been fifty-four years since the first satellite was launched. Here‘s what I wrote on the forty-fifth anniversary (hard to believe that was nine years ago):

Forty-five years after the Wright brothers flew their first flight, thousands of aircraft had been built and hundreds of thousands of people had flown on routine commercial flights.

Forty-five years after Sputnik, space remains an elite destination–only a few hundred people have visited it.

It’s not for lack of interest. Public opinion polls indicate that millions of people would like to experience space flight if they could afford it. And the lack of their ability to afford it is not a consequence of physics–that accounts for at most an order of magnitude difference in the costs of space flight over air travel.

No, people can’t afford it because, unlike almost any other issue in which many people have an interest, their government is indifferent to their wants. It can get away with this because it has told them that it is “hard,” and because they’ve been told that it is for decades, and the belief itself makes it difficult to raise money that might provide any counter examples, they believe it.

And why shouldn’t they? Thirty years ago, 15 years after the launch of the first satellite, we stopped walking on the moon. We’d done it several times before, and it was expensive. What was the point? We’d beaten the Russians. We’d shown the superiority of American state socialism over Soviet state socialism. That there might be room for American free enterprise, or the desires of the American people to sample the vistas of the cosmos themselves, was never considered.

Note that this was just four months before Columbia was destroyed.

Four years ago, on the fiftieth anniversary, I had a week-long back and forth with Homer Hickam at the LA Times, a conversation that I think still holds up pretty well.

Here‘s what I wrote a couple years ago, which was also the fifth anniversary of the winning of the X-Prize:

The original X-Prize only had one serious competitor, but the variety of approaches being displayed in the LLC will provide a robust suite of technologies for affordable transportation not only for earth to orbit, but for access to other planetary surfaces as well. And it can be accomplished for a tiny fraction of the cost overrun on a typical NASA project.

Beyond that, it will provide a self-sustaining business base for some if not all of these new ventures that will allow them to provide affordable transport to both government and private customers. Their very existence has created a revolutionary new market for affordable space science that may provide the synergy with the providers necessary to profitably grow the industry. It will also demonstrate its value to the taxpayer by providing more science for the tax dollar. And as experience is gained in the suborbital world, the performance envelopes will be gradually expanded, flying higher and faster, applying lessons to newer generations of vehicles, until suborbital finally becomes orbital and space access finally becomes affordable, with all that implies for our future off planet.

It is a path from which we were diverted in the panic of Sputnik, over half a century ago, but are now firmly back on track as a result of that other anniversary half a decade ago. And with the continued disarray in the business-as-usual and unaffordable federal space policy, and as the establishment awaits a decision from the Obama administration in the wake of the Augustine report coming out this month, on this dual anniversary it’s looking increasingly like a new approach that will be unstoppable.

Well, it’s still going, even if not as fast as would be desired.

[Update a few minutes later[

Here is my blog post from the fiftieth anniversary, with many links. Note in particular my TCSDaily piece.

1 comment on this post.
  1. Walter Sobchak:

    On 4 Oct 1957, I spent the evening, as I often did on Friday evenings, with my grandfather, z”l. He had acquired the first transistor radio I ever saw. He loaned it to me the next morning, so that I could listen to it while I walked home. The network news came on as I headed home and told of the Sputnik.

    It was a magical moment for a 10 year old boy.