AP photo by Robin Conn
AP photo by Robin Conn|
Konrad Dannenburg, left, a member of Wernher von Braun's NASA team ; author and former NASA engineer Homer Hickam; former Marshall Space Flight Center Director Bill Lucas; Von Braun team engineer Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger; and Davidson Technologies founder Dr. Julian Davidson toast the 50th anniversary of the Russian Sputnik satellite in front of a Sputnik mockup at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration in Huntsville. Dannenburg said Sputnik inspired the U.S. to set its sights even higher- to go to the moon and send robots to Mars and probes to other planets. "Without Sputnik, we probably would not have done any of these things," he said.
NEWSPAPER IN EDUCATION
50 years ago, Sputnik changed everything
Global TV, 24-7 communications
only part of legacy
By Seth Borenstein
AP Science Writer
WASHINGTON — With a series of small beeps from a spiky globe 50 years ago, the world shrank and humanity's view of Earth and the cosmos expanded.
Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched by the Soviets and circled the globe Oct. 4, 1957. The Space Age was born. And what followed were changes to everyday life that people now take for granted.
What we see on television, how we communicate with each other, and how we pay for what we buy have all changed with the birth of satellites.
Communications satellites helped bring wars and celebrations from thousands of miles away into our living rooms. When we go outside, weather satellites show us whether we need to carry an umbrella or flee a hurricane. And global positioning system satellites even keep us from getting lost on unfamiliar streets.
Sputnik gave birth to more than mere technology. The threat of a Soviet-dominated space spurred the U.S. government to increase tenfold money spent on science, education and research. Satellite pictures of Earth inspired an embryonic environmental movement.
Spy and communications satellites also kept the world at relative peace, experts say. Just last week, scientists used commercial satellite images to document human rights violations in Myanmar.
War in space
When Sputnik was launched, the public thought a space future would consist of gigantic space stations and colonies on the moon and other planets. The fear was warfare in space raining down on Earth.
"The reality is that the things we expected did not come to pass, and the things that we did not fathom changed our lives in so many ways that we cannot even envision a life that's different at this point," said Roger Launius, senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
America got a taste of that in May 1998. Just one communications satellite malfunctioned. More than 30 million pagers went silent. Credit card payment approvals didn't work. National Public Radio and CNN's Airport Television Network went off the air in some places.
"The civilization we live in today is as different from the one that we lived in the mid-1950s as the mid-1950s were from the American revolution," said Howard McCurdy, an American University public policy professor. "It's hard to imagine these things happening without space. I guess I could have a computer, but I wouldn't be able to get on the Internet."
184-pound metal ball
All thanks to an 184-pound metal ball with spikes shot into space by a country that doesn't exist anymore.
Because Sputnik was launched by a centralized communist government, people feared that space would help totalitarianism, said Georgia Tech history professor Steve Usselman.
However, satellites "clearly undermined state authority, particularly national authority," Usselman said. "It's taken us in exactly the opposite direction."
As satellites went commercial, they spurred on financial markets, opened up information to people across the globe — which is not what centralized governments want, Usselman said.
Spy satellites also enabled countries to keep an eye on their enemies.
"Except for crazy guys in airplanes, nobody can pull off a sneak attack," McCurdy said. "I think it made the world much less dangerous than it was in 1956."
Weather satellites now give people an accurate view of threats from nature, as well as vastly improved everyday forecasts, said Keith Seitter of the American Meteorological Society. They save lives when hurricanes approach, giving days of notice instead of hours.
"It's very hard to be surprised these days with the kind of data we have available with satellites," Seitter said. "Certainly 50 years ago that wasn't the case."
In television, satellite communications let upstart networks like HBO, CNN and ESPN develop and feed cable systems via satellite. That brought world events live to people around the globe. But it also allowed people to isolate themselves with niche channels, Usselman said.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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