Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sputnik anniversary: Ahmadinejad's Mars Ambitions

Fifty years ago today, the first artificial satellite was launched. You could look at this and remark upon how much we've accomplished since then and breathe a patriotic sigh of satisfaction, as some space writers have done. Or you could look at this and wonder how we can possibly equal the accomplishments of the sixtes, as others have done.

I find it frustrating to read all the coverage of this anniversary, because so much of it misses the point. And the point is clear right there on the cover of Life magazine: "Why Reds Got It First." A lot of Americans (more to the point, the Americans who controlled the money) didn't much care what an artificial satellite did or how it worked nearly so much as they wanted to know how the Russians could have beaten us to it. So, after it became clear that they couldn't get a human being into orbit first either, they made up a new goal (man on the moon) and the rest is history. (History that a shocking percentage of Americans don't believe happened-- but that's another post.)

So in all this hand-wringing over why we haven't followed through on the promises implied by our early successes in space, the answer seems obvious--there's no more enemy to race. It's not only that our enemies don't express themselves through technological achievement (if only they did) it's also that we have no enemies capable of engaging in this sort of sparring with us at all. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had Mars ambitions instead of nuclear ambitions, and if he had the resources to get there, we'd be going too. And until we get an enemy worth racing, we're not going to do much.

Well, that's depressing. Happy Sputnik day...

1 comment:

Irving Flashman said...

For those of us who quietly note the passage of October 4 each year, this anniversary is truly a major event.

In 1957, to this 14 year old science nerd and science fiction fan and his like-minded friends, Sputnik was the best news imaginable. That the Russians pulled it off first, rather than the Americans, mattered not at all. This was a human accomplishment. Our interest in space travel, prior to that day only for kooks and dreamers, overnight became mainstream. Those of us with short-wave radios listened for the steady beep-beep-beep that came around every 90 minutes. We smirked at the black-and-white television pundits declaring the dawn of a new age -- we had known that for years. And we laughed at the newspaper articles trying helplessly to explain what kept the "artificial satellite" from falling.

Somehow we put a man on the moon just 12 years later. (Today we would still be litigating over the environmental impact studies.) By then, the Russians had long since dropped out of the race and, as you say, the American public lost interest soon afterward. Except for us kids who thrilled at the news of Sputnik. We still want to go back.