Sputnik's anniversary raises questions about future of space exploration

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."

National pride did not improve when the United States tried to launch its own satellite two months later. The rocket rose a few feet off the launch pad. Then it burst into flames. Then it collapsed.

America finally caught up with the Soviets thanks to German space pioneer Wernher von Braun and his team of engineering whizes. Four months after Sputnik, von Braun's rocket lofted a satellite into orbit.

The race was on. It ended with Armstrong's "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" on the moon on July 20, 1969.

The Soviets did the USA a favor by beating America into space, although it did not seem so then, says one von Braun team member. "It really put the attention of all people, including the president, (on) the shortcomings we had," says Konrad Dannenberg, now 95 and living in Madison, Ala.

Without Sputnik, Americans might never have made it to the moon. At the least, "we wouldn't have gone on the schedule we did," says space historian Roger Launius of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Space exploration drew unwavering political support as long as the space race lasted. With victory came a loss of interest.

NASA killed the Apollo program as astronauts were still exploring the moon's craters and plains. Two rockets ready to carry crews to the lunar surface were left to rust after NASA canceled moon trips.

"In the early '70s, we had a transportation system that was the nucleus of what we need to explore the inner solar system," NASA's Griffin says. "We threw all that away. … The more I know, the dumber that decision seems."

It wasn't just politicians who were bored. Even then, a majority of Americans thought the Apollo program wasn't worth the cost, according to Launius' research.

Public support for human space exploration is, and always has been, "a mile wide and an inch deep," Launius says. Americans like it in theory. They don't like paying for it. A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll in 2003 found that 53% of Americans favored a new moon trip, but only 31% favored spending billions of dollars on such a trip.

'I don't see us doing a … lot'

After Apollo ended, most astronauts got to space on the shuttle, which began flying in 1981. Though a marvel of engineering, in its 100-plus flights the shuttle has only gone around and around the Earth. It can't do anything else.

The shuttle "was great for the first few flights," says Thomas Stafford, who flew on Gemini and Apollo missions. "Then (it was) just repeat, repeat, repeat." No wonder, he says, that Americans now generally ignore shuttle missions.

Today, with no geopolitical showdown to jolt politicians into action, few space enthusiasts are confident that America will return to the moon soon. "I don't see us doing a heck of a lot," Bean says, "until someone threatens us."

Some critics say NASA's plans for the moon — which include semi-permanent bases — would put Mars out of reach.

"We could get bogged down … and never get to Mars," says Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. "We'll watch the Russians and Chinese together figure out a way to get to Mars."

Griffin argues that NASA needs to test equipment and procedures on the moon before undertaking a trip to Mars.

On the moon, "we're going to learn things that we'd be silly to skip," he says, calling a moon base "an enormous risk-reduction" tool.

Regardless of the merits of a moon trip, Musk, 36, and Friedman, 67, don't think they'll live to see humans step onto the powdery red surface of Mars.

"There is nothing I want more than to witness a human Mars adventure," Friedman says, but "I don't think they're going to make it in my lifetime."

Contributing: William Risser