Fifty years ago next week, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I — little more than a beeping metal ball — into space. Never before had an artificial object orbited the Earth.
That achievement on Oct. 4, 1957, stunned and alarmed America. It also triggered an epic space race between the world's superpowers that would culminate nearly 12 years later, when Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. The Soviets never made it there.
"Sputnik I changed the world," NASA administrator Michael Griffin says. "It changed history."
Today, as the anniversary of the birth of the Space Age approaches, those who were involved at the beginning and others who are key to future explorations are frustrated. Interviews with those scientists, astronauts, bureaucrats and historians reveal regret about America's decisions regarding space travel, and disagreement about its current goals — namely, returning to the moon rather than focusing on Mars.
They also wonder: Has America's enthusiasm for human exploration of the solar system gotten lost in space?
"There's less interest on the part of Americans in doing bold things," acknowledges Griffin, who nonetheless argues that public support for further human exploration of the solar system remains strong. Griffin sees NASA's $100 billion plan to return to the moon no sooner than a decade from now as an important first step in going to Mars.
Others aren't impressed with NASA's plan and believe the USA should show the same ambition it had a half-century ago amid the shock of Sputnik.
Elon Musk, founder of a private company that hopes to use its rockets to help NASA carry cargo into space, says that, even as most technology has advanced, U.S. technology for flying humans in space has withered. "We used to be able to go to the moon. … Now we can only get to orbit in those creaky old space shuttles," Musk says. "We've regressed."
The moon represents NASA's most ambitious near-term plan, with Mars as its second major target for human exploration. Griffin says he'd like the space agency to aim toward sending astronauts on the three-year round trip to Mars in the 2030s.
"In the 1960s, we imagined we would be sending man to Mars by 1980," says Louis Friedman, head of the Planetary Society, a group that advocates space exploration. "In the 1970s, we imagined we'd be doing it by the end of the century. … It's still a long way off, and it seems to be getting longer."
Budget problems have delayed, from 2012 to 2015, astronauts' first flight on the new spaceship that would carry crews to the moon and Mars. Design of the moon rocket won't start until 2011.
Today, NASA's biggest problem might be a lack of public outcry for space exploration at a time when Americans are more focused on war and terrorism.
"People and cultures have short attention spans," says former astronaut Alan Bean, 75, one of 12 people who walked on the moon.
"That's just the way it is."
'It was a shock'
A half-century ago, all it took to grab America's attention was Sputnik, a flying metal satellite not much bigger than a beach ball.
"Our leaders kept assuring us that our technology and our economic-social system was better than the Soviet system," says space historian Howard McCurdy of American University. "Then they beat us! … It was a shock."
Sputnik also stoked fears of a nuclear attack, McCurdy says, because "if you can fly a satellite over the United States, you can drop a warhead on New York City."