The case of Man v. Gravity came to an end a few seconds after 10:28 p.m. Moscow time on Oct. 4, 1957, when a team of Soviet engineers launched a 100-foot-tall rocket that defied the tug of Earth long enough to drop its passenger, an aluminum ball named Sputnik, into orbit. Gravity's winning streak over humanity was over.
Fifty years later, the launch of Sputnik will be celebrated this week as the official dawn of the space age and the jolt the United States needed to get serious about space travel. That legacy remains, but today, space exploration faces a crippling combination of public indifference, sinking budgets, and a fleet of elderly shuttles. In other words, the future in the cosmos isn't so clear.
While Sputnik represents the symbolic beginning of the space age, it was actually the second Soviet satellite, Sputnik 2, carrying a dog named Laika, that delivered the real shock to the West. Shortly afterwards, a Navy rocket that was supposed to deliver an American satellite blew up on the launch pad, and it wasn't until January 1958 that an Army rocket succeeded in reaching space. America's initial failure was arguably more humiliating—and motivating—than Sputnik itself. By October, American space efforts were moved from the military to a new agency called NASA, and scientists began warning that technical education needed a major overhaul if the United States was going to stay competitive.
"Sputnik was a marvelous recruiting tool," says Spencer Weart, director of the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. The federal government poured unprecedented money into science education: Research and development dollars jumped nearly 50 percent from 1958 to 1959. Suddenly, the stuff of Buck Rogers comics was a national aspiration.
The decade after Sputnik, which culminated with the lunar landing in 1969, was the golden age of space travel. Funding peaked in the mid-1960s at over 4 percent of federal spending. But once the novelty of the moon landing wore off, space missions were trumped by pressing concerns like the Vietnam War and race riots. By 1975, funding had sunk to about 1 percent of the federal budget, a level it has barely surpassed since.
The moon and beyond. Today, public support for space travel is high—until money enters the equation. A 2006 Gallup Poll found that 2 in 3 people support a return to the moon and beyond, as long as NASA's budget does not exceed 1 percent of the federal budget. But when asked whether the money for current shuttles could have been better spent elsewhere, opinions are split. Support for NASA funding spiked after the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Columbia explosion in 2003 but did not survive slumps in the economy.
In 2004, President George W. Bush called for a return trip to the moon and, eventually, Mars. While space advocates welcomed the idea, skeptics smelled a president trying to beef up his visionary status in an election year. And many congressional leaders accuse the Bush administration of underfunding the agency, which currently receives about 0.6 percent of the federal budget.
Meanwhile, experts say a piloted mission to Mars is still decades in the future. The plan faces a slew of daunting challenges, including how to shield humans from dangerous radiation on the trip. "At the moment," says Michael Neufeld, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, "there is only the political will to go to the moon."
Several milestones stand in the way of that return. The current fleet of shuttles is literally falling apart, as evidenced by the foam that fell off the Columbia during launch, ultimately dooming the vehicle. The remaining shuttles are to be retired in 2010, the year the international space station is due to be completed, but NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said last week the United States, which funds about 70 percent of the space station, will bow out of the project after 2015. Prominent scientists have criticized the station's research value. The current shuttle fleet is scheduled to be replaced by 2014, but without more funding, the project may be delayed for a year.
"Undoubtedly, Sputnik inspired Americans, perhaps for the last time, to the idea of being frontiersmen," Weart says. Since 1969, engineering degrees have dropped from 36 percent of all undergraduate degrees to 32 percent. That's not precipitous, but many are skeptical that Americans can still embrace scientific exploration as they once did.
Space enthusiasts often invoke the destiny defense —we should go "because it's there." But they also argue that finding a new home is essential to mankind's survival as Earth's resources dry up. Says science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury: "Why are we doing this? Because we want to live forever. ... The important thing is we leave the Earth."