Political Propulsion

Viper-172 via Wikimedia Commons

A tiny, beeping satellite changes the world.

Sputnik

Each step we’ve made towards space has been driven by humanity’s thirst for exploration and knowledge. But the roots of space exploration—and its future—are also based in national policy, and its more complicated motivations.

The United States’ first ventures into space were rushed forward when, in October of 1957, Russia launched the little satellite “Sputnik.” Sputnik didn’t do much besides broadcast a simple radio transmission, encoding temperature and pressure data as a series of beeps for 22 days (until its battery ran out), but it motivated the American government to form NASA and pass the National Defense Education Act, a bill that would fund college math and science programs, and motivate thousands of students to pursue educations that would further the space and defense programs.

For the next ten years, there would be an increasing emphasis on space policy, first to catch up to the Russians, who had put a man into space before the United States, and then to send human to the moon. In the years immediately preceding the first moon landing, NASA’s portion of the entire federal budget rose to almost 4.5%! Once the moon landings were basically assured, NASA’s budget steadily declined, and it began to focus its manned missions in low orbit—with space stations and the shuttle program—while robotic landers and probes would explore further into the solar system.

Today, the International Space Station remains fully operational, but the shuttle program has ended. Now, NASA relies on Russian rockets and spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS ... for the time being. Private domestic companies are developing spacecraft that will soon transport supplies and astronauts to the ISS, and perhaps further, under NASA contracts.