Sputnik: It was 50 years ago today.

On October 4, 1957, humans looked skyward and for the first time saw a manmade object orbiting over their heads. A dot of light passing west to east across the night sky, history’s first artificial satellite: Sputnik.*

At the time, much of the world’s reaction seemed political in nature. For Russians, Sputnik evoked a strong streak of pride for what their nation had accomplished. Throughout the United States and Western Europe, the reaction was more one of shock and amazement at how a seemingly third-world agricultural nation had become the first to reach beyond Earth. Yet the true significance of the event was lost for most.

On that day in 1957, humanity first reached beyond the cradle of its birth and began its journey into the universe. Centuries from now, assuming humanity is still around, Sputnik likely will be viewed historically as the symbolic (although probably not practical) moment when humanity moved to the next level of civilization. The real tragedy, in my opinion, is that the roaring start of human space exploration has all but stalled. The first 12 years following Sputnik included one ‘first” after another: first man in space, first spacewalk, first view of the dark side of the moon, and finally in 1969 the first man on the moon. But the moon landings, rather than being but one step in the continued progression of space exploration, became the climax. After Apollo, the space programs in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were scaled back, to the point where men have never again traveled beyond low Earth orbit, and every unmanned space probe involves a multiyear fight for funding.

Sure, since 1972 there has been talk of manned expeditions to Mars, and recently NASA has begun planning for a humanity’s return to the moon. But so far that’s all it is — plans and talk — while target dates slip a decade or more into the future. Private companies have started to pick up some of the slack, especially in the area of launching tourists into space. But it is difficult to imagine humans returning to the moon on private spacecraft, and downright inconceivable that a private individual would be the first to land on Mars. Such big ticket explorations still reside in the realm of public funding and support.

The good news is that when viewed across the expanse of human history, a period of a few decades (or even several centuries) between Sputnik and humanity’s permanent expansion beyond earth will seem miniscule. The bad news is that for those of us living through that interim — who despite being born after Sputnik may not live to see humans walk on Mars — that progress seems glacially slow.

*Although people recall memories of watching Sputnik pass overhead on those nights in late 1957, Sputnik itself was only the size of a beach ball and was not visible to the naked eye. In reality, what people were seeing was the much larger Soviet rocket booster that had launched Sputnik, and that tumbled in orbit just behind Sputnik.

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