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Launch of Sputnik 50 Years Ago Began Superpower Space Race


Fifty years ago, on October 4, 1957, the former Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite into Earth's orbit, called Sputnik, which began a space race with the United States. While the intense competition that marked the early years of space no longer exists, experts agree Sputnik forever changed the perception of outer space and its possibilities. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

With a diameter of 58 centimeters and weighing about 83 kilograms, Sputnik was about the size of a large, silvery pumpkin, with strange-looking antennae protruding from it.

And then there was the famous sound picked up by radio operators around the world as Sputnik orbited the earth.

John Logsdon is director of the space policy institute at George Washington University in Washington. On October 4, 1957, when Sputnik was launched, Logston was a 19-year-old college student who was more interested in events closer to home.

"The Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in the [baseball] World Series on that day, and we all went to Milwaukee to party," he said.

But Logston's career path would soon be determined, as he got caught up in the excitement of the space race.

Concerned about Soviet gains, the U.S. Congress in 1958 passed a law that led to the formation of the U.S. space agency NASA.

On April 12, 1961, America's worst fears were realized when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth, beating the United States with a man in space.

One month later, in a now famous speech, President John F. Kennedy signaled the beginning of the space race with the Soviets.

"Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets, with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come, in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own," he said. "For, while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last."

Almost a year after Gargarin's feat, astronaut John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth.

By that time, Logston, a graduate student, says he knew what he wanted to do.

"Space was happening all around me at that point. It was the year of John Glenn's flight. Kennedy had committed us to go to the moon. It was all new and all very exciting, so I started writing papers about the political and international relations dimensions of space," said Logston.

The remainder of the 1960s saw a frenzy of activity culminating with the first American astronaut to land on the moon, Neil Armstrong.

The 1970s was the decade of Skylab, the forerunner of the International Space Station. Astronauts, performing a series of spacewalks, studied the effects of microgravity on humans,

Alexei Kojevnikov, a history of science professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says the United States benefited far more from the space race than did the former Soviet Union.

Kojevnikov says America's intense focus on space attracted an international pool of talent.

"Science in the United States became much more culturally diverse and racially diverse by including many more women and many more representatives of other ethnicities and races in the profession of science, an unintended but probably the most serious consequence that Sputnik had on the profession of science," he said.

John Logston of the George Washington University says the U.S. space effort, in particular, Apollo missions to the moon, had a profound effect on the American psyche.

But Logston believes the pride generated by Apollo sidetracked the United States' space exploration efforts.

"By spending the decade of the sixties going to the moon and stopping, then we had to start over in the outward movement of first low earth orbit, first a system to get there with a space shuttle, then a [international] space station, and now, finally, a renewed commitment to human exploration," he added.

Today, Russians, Americans and Europeans work in collaboration on the International Space Station, an orbiting scientific outpost where research is carried out in the weightlessness of outer space.

The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, has beamed back hundreds-of-thousands of pictures of distant galaxies, giving astronomers unprecedented views of the Universe.

The successor to Hubble will be the James Webb Space Telescope, named after the man who organized the Apollo program.

James Mather, NASA's project manager for the James Webb telescope, says the infrared telescope will be launched by a European rocket, and unfold in space some 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

"And then, with that, it will be able to see the most distant objects, which are now, since we are looking back in time by looking at things far away, we'll be able to see things that are as near as possible to the Big Bang itself," he said.

Mather says astronomers plan to point the telescope at planets in distant galaxies, possibly discovering others with Earth-like features. And it all started 50 years ago with a clunky little satellite called Sputnik.