Published: October 2007

The Space Age at 50

Space Feature

Space: The Next Generation

By Guy Gugliotta
Photograph by NASA
The space age began on the chill evening of October 4, 1957. Sputnik, a 184-pound (83 kilograms) aluminum sphere tucked into the nose of a Soviet R-7 ballistic missile, streaked skyward from its launchpad near the edge of the Kyzyl Kum desert about a hundred miles (170 kilometers) east of the Aral Sea to become the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. An epoch of exploration and discovery as momentous as any in history had begun. Humans would go on to orbit the Earth, float in space, and—most spectacularly—set foot on the moon.

Just 15 years later it was over—after the last Apollo mission to the moon in December 1972. The space shuttle, a technological marvel at its debut in 1981, has proved to be fragile, expensive, and dangerous. And since it cannot fly beyond low Earth orbit, it has transformed spaceflight into a series of high-tech cruises to nowhere. When Columbia disintegrated over Texas during reentry in 2003, killing all seven of its astronauts, investigators decried the aimlessness of the human spaceflight program.

In response, President George W. Bush has outlined a new "Vision for Space Exploration": to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars. The United States is ordering new rockets, building a new spaceship, making plans for a moon base—and, against long odds, trying to recapture the sense of urgency and adventure that propelled our first push into space.

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |