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Sputnik 1 plus 30 years: the long and the short of it.

Sputnik 1 plus 30 years: The long and the short of it

Does the Space Age make you feel old? Or young?

There are many people old enough to have families and established careers who were not even born when Sputnik 1 was launched on Oct. 4, 1957. If you are among their number, artificial satellites have always been in your sky, and it would not be surprising if you view the intervening years as "nearly a third of a century'--an only slightly time-stretching phrase for a span that is, after all, greater than your lifetime.

Yet whether the Space Age seems to have begun only yesterday or in the ancient past is as much a matter of attitude as it is of age. You do not have to be a very senior citizen, for example, to remember how recently human beings walked on the moon, or to notice the "blink of an eye' during which robot spacecraft have visited most of the known planets in the solar system.

Despite the accelerating pace of technological and social change that Alvin Toffler appropriately dubbed "future shock,' the road ahead in time has both fast lanes and slow, just like the one that led us here from the past. The United States has not sent a spacecraft from earth toward another world since 1978-- nearly a decade, or less than half as long ago as the appearance of the Beatles.

Timed to accompany Sputnik's anniversary, an international gathering of space scientists is taking place in Moscow. U.S. and Soviet participants have cooperated in various ways in recent years with one another's planetary missions, and discussions are now under way about the possibility of a major joint endeavor to send human beings to Mars. Yet that goal is at best decades away, and issues such as technology transfer can becloud even the most sensitive of crystal balls over such a distance. The situation is not unlike that of a time machine with a zoom lens, swooping in and out to take a look from nearer and farther away, and changing at wildly varying rates.

It is an increasingly common quandary --the matter of whether one's "time sense' needs to be stretched or compressed in the search for a true view of reality. Often I recall a conversation I had in 1976 with Leslie Orgel, a distinguished scientist who had spent more than a decade as part of the quest to synthesize amino acids (inevitably dubbed "the building blocks of protein'). Our chat was well after that effort had proved successful--indeed, the synthesis itself had turned out to be almost easy. But what I remember most clearly is his acknowledgment that it had been impossible to know, before the process was understood, whether the prize would be right around the corner or at the far end of some pathway of incalculable length.

Will human beings travel to the realms of other stars? A case can be made for either opinion (though I believe that "no' would be a far more difficult one to defend--about as bad a bet as most uses of the word "impossible'). Yet even if you simply assume the affirmative, the question of "when' raises exactly the same uncertainty as that faced by Orgel and countless others.

So think about Sputnik 1. Did it appear in the firmament a long time ago, or just yesterday? Then tackle a much more difficult, and surely more provocative, question: Regardless of what your calendar (or stopwatch) says, might it also have been inevitable?

Then take a look back across the Space Age, as afflicted now as it has ever been by budgets, politics and towering stacks of paper, with events seeming either to overtake one another or to stretch maddeningly from delay to delay, and muse once more: When is tomorrow? For whether the time feels long or short, it will arrive.
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Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 10, 1987
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