Image Credit: NASA/Asif Siddiqi
Fifty years ago this Thursday (October 4, 1957), the Space Age began when the Soviet Union launched a basketball-sized metal sphere called Sputnik into space. This first ever artificial moon showed that humankind (and, more importantly at the time, the Soviets) possed the technological prowess to explore beyond the tenuous atmosphere of our own planet. Much larger than its technical impact was its psychological and political impact. In less than 12 years, the United States landed the first humans on the moon.
Although I wasn't alive at the time, the Space Race is all the more amazing when I think about what little has changed on Earth in the last 12 years. Although it wasn't huge, the Internet was in use; I already had a website and routinely used email. We are still flying the same space shuttles (although the Russian Soyuz capsules are virtually unchanged for decades -- they are quite reliable).
Still, unlike many, I am not dismayed at the seemingly slow progress of human achievement in space. Robots have explored almost every nook and cranny of the solar system, humans have had a quasi-permanent presence in space, and, perhaps most importantly, satellite technology has transformed human life. Try to imaging life without weather satellites, satellite communications, or GPS systems. Satellite technology is responsible for live video feeds from around the world, and satellite TV and radio are quite popular.
It took humans centuries to master sailing, and at times technology seemed very slow to advance. But, these days we can cruise over (or under) the ocean for months on end with no worries about storms, food, fuel, disease, sea monsters, etc. I think that, in time, humans will learn how to navigate the cosmos (at least our own niche of it). But it may take centuries -- not just the 12 years between the first satellite and the first moon landing. We'll get there.