The Space Age

All of us living beings belong together.

—Erwin Schrodinger


hat does the space age offer, and what might it yet be? Perhaps it is no more than an age in which new tools and weapons expand our knowledge and ability to trade and fight wars. A glorified Stone, Bronze, or Iron Age, during which our usual activities will be different only in that they extend beyond Earths atmosphere. Or is the space age essentially dif­ferent; was the launch of Sputnik I the turning point Tsiolkovsky predicted when he wrote of mankind leaving the earth in pursuit of light and space? Not Russians, Chinese, Frenchmen, or Americans, but mankind, building cities together in space, as he advocated in his science fiction book Beyond the Earth.

Space clearly has defense and commercial implications. On the other hand, the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan are joindy planning an international space station. The beginning of Tsiolkovsky s vision? Perhaps.

From the beginning, the space age has been home to a well-known threesome: science, human exploration (of which the international space station is the most recent example), and the application of science to mili­tary and commercial technologies for Earth. One might expect that the first two, science and exploration, would be the aspects of the space age that would lead toward Tsiolkovsky s vision of a unified humanity. But maybe space science and exploration are not so different in the ways that they can influence our outlook than are science and engineering in other arenas of endeavor—the international effort to map the human genome, for example, or all of the exploration that humanity has undertaken to date. Perhaps in the end it will be the third, at first glance the least different and least glamorous aspect of the space age, that will contribute most to an alternative outlook on the world.

Both space science and exploration have caught our attention with the vastness of their aspiration. Pioneers 10 and 11, the first spacecraft to be sent to study the outer planets, have done their job. Pioneer 10 is now rac­ing down the sun’s magnetotail, heading for the interstellar medium and away from the galactic center. Pioneer 11 is heading for the interstellar
medium with the galactic center lying beyond. (William Pickering and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, incidentally, contributed significantly to these early successes of NASA.) The whole was grandly conceived and has since been surpassed by spacecraft with even grander ambitions.

The Pioneers each carry plaques with drawings of a man and a woman, showing their size with respect to the spacecraft. There is a draw­ing of a hydrogen atom (intended to show our familiarity with the most abundant gas in the universe, but also—unintentionally—a symbol of one of our more devastating weapons). Two other drawings give the space­crafts path through the solar system from Earth and show our sun’s posi­tion relative to fourteen pulsars—messages launched from a remote island in space to unknown recipients who may never receive them and, if they do, may not understand them. The urge is familiar, as is the spirit of that blithe inclusion of a return address and the need to believe that the addressees, if they are in a position to respond, are essentially benevolent.

What might that expectation of benevolence be based on? Humility in the face of eternity? “Eternity… like a great ring of pure and endless light”; the awe expressed in Henry Vaughan’s lines written three centuries ago appeared on the faces of the mission controllers in Houston as they gazed at the pictures that the Apollo spacecraft had relayed to Earth of Earth.

Here was form for a poetic metaphor. Yet the view of Earth against the blackness was so spectacular that it has itself become a metaphor.

Science and exploration cannot sustain poetic awe in this or any other age, for all their glamor and beauty.

So what does the application of space technology to solving earth – bound concerns have to offer? When men looked to Earth (women were, for the most part, still waiting in the wings in 1957) and asked what value the space age might have, they thought about tasks they had thought about for millennia: among others, navigation, weather forecasting, and commu­nication—enterprises that in the tradition of previous ages improve the quality of life and facilitate warfare. The hilltop fire flashes news of a battle or of the birth of a child. The general and the farmer have always wanted the weather forecast. Both the master of a merchantman and the captain of a nuclear submarine benefit from better navigational aids.

Of the men and few women who did these things, some were more brilliant than others. Some worked with passionate belief or fascination, others to pay the mortgage. Some had an eye to the main chance, aware that there was money to be made, reputations to be built. Most, doubtless, reconciled more purposes than one. Nor is it possible to say who held what motives in what proportion. At the best of times, the motives of oth­ers are difficult to discern and classify. Across time, in a different world, the task is almost impossible. Certainly those in America believed in the importance of their work to the welfare of the United States of America.

The world of 1957 gave good cause for such an outlook. When James Reston interviewed Nikita Khrushchev for the New York Times after the launch of Sputnik, Khrushchev’s speech was littered in all seriousness with descriptions of Westerners as reactionary bourgeois and imperialist warmongers. The background noise included Korea, the Suez crisis, the Hungarian revolution, hydrogen bombs, and advertisements for nuclear shelters in suburban backyards. The searing images then were of the Holo­caust and of atrocities in China.

The memory to be lived with and the crucible that formed the par­ticipants and in which relationships were forged, was the Second World War. Nearly every nation on Earth was involved. Pearl Harbor had been an unimaginable shock to the American psyche, and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were known but not fully realized. Some Ameri­cans saw those atomic bombings mainly as a reprieve from witnessing fur­ther horrors in the Pacific.

Against this background, when Vietnam, with its legacy of doubt was a thing of the future, America developed a determination to keep the peace through military and economic strength. In defense laboratories, university departments, and industry, scientists and engineers developed satellites that would improve navigation, weather forecasting, and communication. Each now has its place in everyday civilian life as well as in defense.

The military application of providing more accurate positioning for nuclear submarines was the impetus behind the development of navigation satellites. Today, there are more civilian than military users of space-based navigation. This trend began with Transit, the long-lived first generation of navigation satellites. A similar duality exists in the history of communica­tion and weather satellites. Ostensibly, commercial and military applica­tions were developed separately, but the scientists and engineers working on civilian satellites often worked on military projects as well. There was an inevitable cross-fertilization of ideas.

These satellites, pointing to the earth, were truly earthbound in their conception and inception. They were rooted deeply and consciously in defense and commerce and the competition of nations—no transcending idea of mankind in pursuit of light and space. Yet unexpectedly, and in practical ways, these technologies are building from the messy foundations of confused human motives a picture of the earth and its inhabitants that is harder to dismiss in daily life than are the inspirational views revealed by Apollo. Wonderful though that inspiration is, the mundane application satellites are beginning—only beginning—to encourage a practical appre­ciation of one Earth.

The hurricane that devastates the eastern seaboard of the United States begins as an innocuous atmospheric disturbance over Africa. Navi­gation satellites can be used worldwide. Satellites make communication possible with places landlocked among political enemies (as in some African countries) or from war and disaster zones that we might otherwise be able to ignore. Faced by the reality of global physical phenomena as revealed by the unique bird’s-eye view of satellites, international organiza­tions have sprung up to manage satellites. At the height of the Cold War, ideological enemies cooperated with varying degrees of amity within groups like the International Telecommunication Satellite Organization and the World Meteorological Organization.

Thus these inward-looking satellites offer more than we have yet realized. They are for the first time, and in a very practical sense, a technol­ogy that can be fully realized only by considering the earth as an intercon­nected whole. On October 4, 1957, the first step was taken. Later, as the technology of navigation, weather, and communication satellites evolved, it became clear that the greatest gains or advances in knowledge would come from a holistic view of the world. Of course, the knowledge gained can still serve confrontational purposes. Yet, irrespective of our motives, we see that the nature of the technology itself urges cooperation rather than confrontation. Cooperation might become a habit that sustains the promise inherent in Apollo’s luminous images of a blue-green earth.