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The Sputtering Space Race — A 50-Year Perspective

Fifty years after Sputnik, is there any reason for the United States to redouble its commitment to space exploration?

October 9, 2007

Fifty years after Sputnik, is there any reason for the United States to redouble its commitment to space exploration?

Fifty years ago, the now-defunct Soviet Union stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik.

While it was little more than a large silver ball carrying a radio transmitter, Sputnik represented nothing less than a claim on the future of mankind by an odious political system and a boast of Marxist superiority over everything from education to industrial organization.

At the time, the United States had been financially and technically very capable of beating the Soviets to space. Werner von Braun had even begged the Eisenhower Administration for use of a Redstone rocket to put a U.S. satellite into orbit two years earlier.

Spurred on, however, by Sputnik, the United States would convincingly demonstrate in 12 short years the superiority of a robust market economy and a free people with the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon.

In the intervening years, nothing has harmed the U.S. space program more than the ill-fated decision to follow Apollo with the Space Shuttle. NASA’s “camel by committee” came up with the stunningly bad idea of making the Shuttle both a human transport and a heavy-lifting space truck.

The big idea was that the Shuttle would not only rocket humans into space — but also launch and even retrieve commercial satellites. In this way, the Shuttle would “pay for itself.”

Unfortunately, the design compromises required to make the Shuttle both a “bus” and a “truck” resulted in a system immensely more complex than originally envisioned.

As the Shuttle’s weight increased many fold, more powerful engines were required, along with a huge external fuel tank. Finally, in a total betrayal of the original concept, solid rocket boosters had to be strapped on for lift off — and it was these “strap on bombs” that eventually doomed the Challenger.

Historically, the Shuttle’s more complex and heavier system has greatly reduced the number of possible annual launches. Because of rising costs and numerous delays, the commercial satellite launch business that NASA was counting on to generate profits quickly became a money loser.

In the bitterest of ironies, this has forced NASA to pretty much abandon the satellite launch business that had demanded many of the design compromises in the first place.

The bigger engineering problem with the Space Shuttle is that its weight limits it to very low orbits. This makes it totally unsuitable for supporting lunar exploration or high-orbit goals.

Accordingly, with the aging shuttle fleet scheduled to retire in the next two years, the question Americans must ask 50 years after Sputnik is whether there is any reason to redouble our commitment to space exploration.

At least one answer may be found in the ambitious plans of other countries like China, Japan, India and Russia to reach for the stars.

These four countries clearly understand what U.S. politicians have never really effectively been able to sell to the body politic — namely, that reaching for the stars has tremendous commercial and military implications.

In fact, with the luxury of 50 years of hindsight, Sputnik has turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to America.

The resultant space race gave birth to a veritable cornucopia of commercial technologies that continue to enrich all of our lives — from GPS, medical telemetry and hurricane tracking to needle breast biopsy, cordless power tools and digital image processing for CAT scans and MRIs.

This commercial bounty aside, space also offers any country the ultimate strategic high ground and the ominous ability to militarize space. Indeed, it was precisely the specter of weapons in space that allowed Sputnik to spread so much fear across the United States.

We do not wish to see space turned into yet another battlefield, especially for nuclear weapons. This would be the ultimate affront to both human sense and human decency.

Yet for the United States to lag behind in what is now a rapidly escalating space race is to invite the militarization of space that we should all rightly fear — for both nature and strategic high grounds abhor vacuums.

For these reasons, the United States clearly needs to approach its space future with the same focus and fervor once present in the immediate aftermath of Sputnik. Given NASA’s current shallow trajectory, we are clearly falling far short of that goal.

Editor’s note: This piece was co-authored by Greg Autry, a pioneer software entrepreneur, who now serves as a lecturer in strategy at The Paul Merage School of Business at UC Irvine. The two are currently working on a book on the global space race.