Sputnik is 60 as new space race beckons

Blast off: Sputnik spent 96 days in space, orbiting Earth 1,400 times. It burnt up on re-entry.

Does space exploration have a bright future? When Sputnik was launched 60 years ago, it supercharged the space race. Now a new dash to Mars has dawned, but some see conflict on the horizon.

“In the olden days, explorers like Columbus had the good fortune to open up the terrestrial globe. Now we have the good fortune to open up space." So wrote the scientist Valentin Vassilev as Sputnik, the first ever man-made satellite, flew up into space.

The Russians had won. America also vowed to send a satellite into space but was too late.

The launch caused panic in an America gripped by the cold war. Lyndon Johnson warned that the Soviets could soon drop “bombs on us from space”. And physicist Edward Teller declared it “a greater defeat for our country than Pearl Harbour”.

But among the terror there was also wonder. Soviet media released Sputnik’s radio frequency, allowing thousands of radio enthusiasts to tune to its distinctive beeping. Crowds gathered to watch the satellite soar through the night sky, its bright surface making it visible to the naked eye.

Nuclear missiles were not launched, but the space race exploded. The USA established NASA in 1958. But they suffered defeat again in 1961 when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. However, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, America claimed ultimate victory.

Now competition has turned into collaboration. Last week, NASA announced that America and Russia have joined forces to build a space station orbiting the moon. The station will be a “gateway to deep space”, and NASA hopes astronauts will use it to travel to Mars by the 2030s.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk wants to get there sooner. The SpaceX founder plans to build a rocket which will take people to Mars by 2024. He hopes to build a “self-sustaining colony” on the planet.

But for others, the future of the space race is not so bright. In the book Ghost Fleet, Peter Singer and August Cole predict that the third world war will be fought in space. They may be right. US General John Hyten declared that America “must prepare for battles high above Earth”. And China has already developed “super-powered lasers” able to destroy American satellites.

So should we be optimistic about the future of space exploration?

Star Wars

“Space science has enormous benefits,” say some. It is one of the only fields where politically opposed countries cooperate peacefully. And one day technology could give us a clean slate to build new societies on distant planets. Even if that day never comes, technological leaps will revolutionise life on Earth.

“This is a dangerous road,” argue others. Wars throughout history have been about humans competing for resources ― space will be no different. Besides, Earth is in a bad enough state as it is. And colonising another planet will just allow us to continue wrecking the home we already have.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live on Mars?
  2. Should humanity colonise other planets?


  1. Try to write down the names of all of the planets in the solar system. Can you put them in order? Start with the planet closest to the sun.
  2. Pick your favourite planet in the solar system. Research what it is like. You could find out what chemicals compose its atmosphere; how hot or cold the climate is; whether the surface is solid, gaseous, or liquid. Now imagine how humans might live there. What would our homes look like? What tools would humans need to survive? Would it be fun to live there?

Some People Say...

“The space race is a pointless waste of money.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Mars is inhospitable to unsupported human life. The average surface temperature on the planet is -55°C, but temperatures near the equator can rise to 20°C. Due to its thin atmosphere, solar radiation and galactic cosmic rays would be fatal to humans. There are currently two operational rover probes on the planet, launched in 2004 and 2012 respectively.
What do we not know?
The new SpaceX rocket is only in its planning phase, and has not yet been constructed. There is no spaceship currently capable of transporting humans to Mars, and we do not know if this will be possible. Current laser weapons systems operate from Earth, and we do not know if they can be fixed to spacecraft or satellites and operated in space.

Word Watch

An Italian explorer, navigator, and coloniser (1451-1506). He is widely credited with the European discovery of America in 1492.
Cold war
A period of military rivalry primarily between the USA and the Soviet Union (1947-1991). Both countries manufactured extensive arsenals of nuclear weapons. The period was characterised by a widespread fear of impending nuclear devastation.
Lyndon Johnson
US president 1963-69. In 1957 Johnson was a senator and minority leader of the Democrats. As vice president, he would become president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. He won the 1964 presidential election for the 1965-69 term.
Edward Teller
Known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb”, he worked on the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb.
Founded in 2002 with the goal of developing reusable space rockets and colonising Mars.
Ghost Fleet
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015. Singer is a renowned political scientist who has worked for the US Department of Defence. Cole is an author and expert on the future of conflict.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.