The Race to Exploit Outer Space

By David, Leonard | The World and I, May 1999 | Go to article overview

The Race to Exploit Outer Space


David, Leonard, The World and I


They silently slip through the vacuum void of space.

Over 2,500 satellites belonging to various nations now circuit Earth. They're built to provide a range of services, from handling global telecommunications and eyeing the world's weather and climate patterns to monitoring crop growth or supporting military navigation and reconnaissance needs.

Spacecraft have also been dispatched to fly by, orbit, or land upon nearly all of our solar system's entourage of planets. Furthermore, amazing images of the surrounding universe are being relayed earthward from numbers of spaceborne observatories, such as the powerful Hubble Space Telescope.

Meanwhile, tracks from a well-wheeled robotic rover snake between rocks and the distant dunes of Mars. And there on our neighboring Moon, human footprints dot its dusty, aeon-aged, and cratered surface.

BEEPS HEARD ROUND THE WORLD

Much has taken place since the lofting of the first artificial "moon" of Earth--the former Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 satellite--on October 4, 1957. Those frail beeps broadcast by Sputnik set off a tumultuous "space race" between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Space became a Cold War battleground for governmental one-upmanship. A country's mastery of space exemplified technical skill, military prowess, and economic strength and translated into political clout within the global community of nations.

As Sputnik 1 orbited overhead, political pandemonium ensued in the United States. The 184-pound Soviet satellite signaled a political coup for the USSR and a slap in the face to U.S. world leadership.

Almost one year to the day after Sputnik 1 soared spaceward, a hastily created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began scripting America's civilian agenda in space. Those early days of space superpower rivalry led to many space science discoveries, as well as demonstrating satellites' ability to benefit day-to-day life here on Earth.

The arena of human space exploration matured thanks to a bold decree by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. His visionary call set the country on a trajectory that eventually led to placing a dozen astronauts on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. In a very real sense, the Moon was seen as an undeclared finish line for the space race.

Project Apollo's key objective of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth during the 1960s can be viewed as a space age equivalent of pyramid building.

"No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space ... and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish," noted Kennedy.

The Apollo effort became a $25 billion monument to technological competence, tenacity, and the willingness of a nation to reach beyond its grasp. While the tip of that pyramid was represented by Moonwalking astronauts, the foundation was built from a mixture of highly skilled government, industry, and university talent. More than 20,000 companies and some 400,000 people throughout the country met the challenge of placing humans on another world.

In terms of human space exploration, flags and footprints on the Moon remain as America's technological high-water mark. This July, in fact, marks the 30th anniversary of the first footfalls on the Moon by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

The history-making milestone of the twentieth century that was Apollo 11 fosters a relook at the value of space activities to a world fast approaching the twenty-first century.

SPACE FOR SALE

No longer is space the domain of government-led programs. Today, a multibillion-dollar space industry exists, one that has become vital to the health and well-being of the global community of nations.

The melting away of Cold War posturing between the United States and Russia has played a major part in reshaping the use of space. …

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