In the Beginning There Was Sputnik, Next Stop is Mars
AP Photo/ Elaine ThompsonTech20:10 04.10.2017(updated 20:17 04.10.2017) Get short URL2158
Sixty years have passed since Earth first listened to Sputnik’s beep, and of course the world has changed a lot since then. That strange signal marked the beginning of the space race and the use of satellites.
Roberto Battiston — From the Oval office of the White House to the Pentagon and from Congress to the hallowed halls of the State Department, that “beep,” which repeated three times per second, was as an alarm bell announcing that Moscow had reached a strategic superiority. It was an incessant reminder that Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles could hit the United States as and when they wanted.
Period photos show American citizens looking at the sky with the naked eye or with binoculars and telescopes of all kinds. The looks are curious and incredulous. Those black and white images remind us of a population accustomed to the fear of a nuclear holocaust.
Washington’s ruling class, aware of these implications, reacted cold-bloodedly. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the brilliant and diplomatic general who had defeated the Nazis, three days after the launch of Sputnik in a nationwide radio and television message on “Science in National Security” reassured Americans and Allies:
“It is my conviction, supported by trusted scientific and military advisers, that, although the Soviets are quite likely ahead in some missile and special areas, and are obviously ahead of us in satellite development, as of today the overall military strength of the free world is distinctly greater than that of the communist countries”. With those words, Eisenhower underlined the importance of science — in this case, space research — in human activities, both security-related and knowledge-intensive, for creating new and useful services for society. Since October 4, 1957, history has taken another course.
It is true that seeing things from above helps us to understand and to transcend contradictions. From Yuri Gagarin to our Paolo Nespoli, one of the things common to all astronauts’ accounts of their experience in orbit is a sense of our planet’s fragility and the desire to save it from catastrophes triggered by mankind. It is within this framework that Italian Space Agency (ASI) and Roscosmos have signed, at the 2016 Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, an agreement to develop a geostationary SAR satellite system (GEOSAR) to provide by 2022 large area continuous SAR data on geological as well as climate change variables.
It is ironic if we consider that the “space race” was a major ingredient of the Cold War and that the stars served as one of the arenas for the political standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, one of the positive – albeit almost certainly not deliberate – results that we have inherited from that era is the fact that the launchpad from which Gagarin took off now launches astronauts of all nations, including America, into space. Thanks to the complex evolution of history, the space race, which was triggered by political and military considerations, has become a journey for men and women who work together to study space and what it can bring mankind as a whole.
For over fifteen years, this journey has been taking us to the ISS (International Space Station), the home of astronauts from different countries that are frequently in competition – not to say at variance – with one another here on earth; but 400km above the planet, at a speed of approximately 28,000kph, cooperation is crucial. Thus, the ISS is the symbol of globalization in space: a form of globalization that is at once cooperative and competitive, and that promises major economic returns.
But now we are about turning another page. At the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, space agencies discussed the future of human exploration of deep space. In the next ten years, the astronauts will move beyond Low Earth Orbit, but within the Earth-Moon system in preparation for deep space exploration including human missions to Mars, the most scientifically interesting planet in the solar system for the search for the origins of life and for possible human colonization.
A discussion and an effort that unlike sixty years ago sees together all of the world’s most important space agencies: NASA, Roscosmos, ESA, CNSA, Jaxa, ASI, etc. A plan to build starting in 2030 a Cis-Lunar basis and then create a lunar base at the south pole. Outposts from which to launch the Red Planet in the ’30s and’ 40s. The changing space world has also been witnessed by the fact that Australia announced the formation of its space agency and that New Zealand has joined the International Astronautical Federation. That means new faces, new intelligence, new industries and new opportunities. A very positive fact that gives us hope for the future of science and space economics. Meanwhile, we celebrate and honor Sputnik, which in Russian means travel companion. The first of the many satellites that daily accompany the journey of our most beautiful and complex spaceship: The Earth.