Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The End of the Sputnik Era

On October 4th, space enthusiasts the world over will be commemorating the launch of Sputnik 1 as the first object ever put into orbit by human hands and minds. Mark Wade has a good piece on the zeitgeist of that era.

The short history of the early space race is that the United States was lagging behind the Russians. In America, rivalries between the branches of the armed forces, and mistrust of the German engineers who had surrendered in the waning days of World War II, squandered the strategic advantage that America had gained from Von Braun's defection. America really didn't take space very seriously until the Soviets launched Sputnik and made America realize how vulnerable it could be to an attack from space.

On the other hand, the Soviets were intensely focused on the use of rocketry for reconnaissance and nuclear strike. The two most powerful engineers in the Soviet program, Korolev & Glushko, were able to put aside their personal animosity (dating back to the gulags in the 1930's) and worked together professionally to create the R-7 launch vehicle. While the R-7 was a failure as an ICBM, it became the basis for the most enduring family of space launchers to have been built by man.

For the past fifty years, we have been living in the Sputnik Era of spaceflight. It has been characterized by nationalist and military justifications for the most elaborate and impressive of space endeavours. The most elaborate, most impressive feat of the Sputnik Era was the Apollo expeditions to the moon. They captured our imaginations, laid the groundwork for human settlement of worlds beyond the earth, and continue to be the meterstick against which we measure human space achievements.

Unfortunately, publicly-driven displays of nationalism such as Apollo have shown themselves to be unsustainable over the long-term. NASA tried to address this with the space shuttle. While the shuttle has been an impressive display of technological advancement, it's that same level of technological complexity which prohibits it from flying at high rates that would make it economical.

In my view, the Sputnik Era started on October 4, 1957, and ended on October 4, 2004. On that fateful day, SpaceShipOne completed its third successful flight to space, winning the X-Prize in the process. We are now transitioning to the "SpaceShipOne" era of manned spaceflight. Commerce will replace nationalism as a justification for human space endeavours. The signs of this transition are everywhere: the Space Station's retirement date has been set even before it's been finished, the shuttle will be retired in three years, Russian efforts to replace the Soyuz spacecraft have run out of funding, and NASA's own lunar return plan faces major fiscal challenges once the next president is sworn in.

Looking back, I cast a wistful look back at an idealized portrait of the Eisenhower Era, bolstered by stories from my parents and films like American Graffiti. Having grown up with the benefits of satellite communications, it's hard for me to imagine the world before Sputnik. Having grown up in the era of "Gorby," Yeltsin & "Pootie," it's hard for me to imagine the fear that people lived under when the Soviets answered to Stalin and Khrushchev. The closest modern analog to Sputnik is the rude awakening we received when China demonstrated its anti-satellite capabilities.

I'll be celebrating the anniversary at dinner with friends from my engineering school days. We'll toast the genius and drive of Korolev & Glushko, and pray that America will never grow as petty and complacent as we did in the years leading up to Sputnik.