Even the Google logo has been altered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1: the first artificial satellite. As someone who spends a very considerable amount of time thinking about how things are going to be in 2050 and 2100, it is remarkable to reflect upon both how different the world is from that of 1957 and how similar it is. The big changes that occurred have often been in areas that few if any people would have anticipated the importance of back then. Areas of great enthusiasm, such as nuclear power and space exploration, have only progressed incrementally since the 1950s and 60s.
I mentioned one Sputnik-related irony in a paper published back in 2005:
At the end of August, 1955, the Central Committee of the Communist Party approved the Soviet satellite program that would lead to Sputnik and authorized the construction of the Baikonour Cosmodrome. This facility, the largest of three Soviet launch sites that would eventually built, was the launching place of Sputnik I (and subsequent Sputniks), and the launch site for all Soviet manned missions…
This former stretch of Kazakhstani desert was also, fatefully, the place to which Nikifor Nikitin was exiled by the Czar in1830 for “making seditious speeches about flying to the moon.” He might have taken cold comfort in the fact that in 1955, the Central Committee gave control of the site to the new Soviet ‘Permanent Commission for Interplanetary Travel.’
For all the drama, it remains unclear to me that manned spaceflight serves any useful scientific or practical purpose at this point in time (see previous). In that sense, perhaps Sputnik – rather than John Glenn – was the true template for humanity’s future involvement in space: an 83.6kg ball of metal with a radio transmitter.
PS. My thesis mentions one somewhat surprising connection between Sputnik and climatic science:
A fortuitous bit of funding produced one of the most famous graphs in the climate change literature: the one tracking CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Examining it closely, a gap can be seen in 1957, where David Keeling’s funding for the project ran out. The Soviet launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957 led to a marked concern in the United States that American science and technology had fallen behind. One result of the subsequent surge in funding was the resumption of the CO2 recording program, which continues to the present day.
This graph is the jagged, upward-sloping line that Al Gore devotes so much attention to near the beginning of An Inconvenient Truth.