In the first week of October 1957, an enormous Soviet R-7 booster blasted the world's first ever artificial satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit around the earth at a speed of 18,000 miles per hour. Only 12 years later, two Americans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, walked on the surface of the Moon, the first human beings ever to do so.
Today, our technological capacity is far in excess of what it was in those days. Scores of millions of homes across the world have personal computers that make the sinister, paranoid HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey" look like a grumpy, old fool. Any home with a post-1995 personal computer and software has greater computing capacity than the entire Soviet or U.S. space programs enjoyed as late as 1966. Space shuttles have plied between Cape Canaveral and low earth orbit for 20 years and low-orbit space stations a quarter of a century old.
But it will be at least 20 years and probably longer before great big spinning wheel space stations generating their own artificial gravity 22,000 miles out will be any more than a pipe dream. No human being has walked on the surface of the moon for almost 30 years since December 1972. And at least 20 years may elapse before the first manned mission to Mars is launched.
A full 45 years after Sergei Korolev, the legendary chief designer of the Soviet space program, lofted Sputnik I into the heavens to beat out the more leisurely and problem-plagued U.S. Vanguard satellite program, Korolev's vision of mankind exploring the Solar System appears far further from realization than it did a generation ago.
The dazzling progress of the first 15 years of the Space Age from 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, to the last Apollo moon landing was followed by nearly three decades of energetic low orbit economic and scientific exploitation of space. But only a handful of unmanned space probes, all too many of them with shoddy equipment or programming flaws, have braved deeper space since. What went wrong? Ironically, famed comic book author Stan Lee probably got it right sooner than anyone else back in 1968, at the very brilliant height of the Space Race.
It was the same year that the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 8 took the greatest single leap into the unknown in human history. It carried astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders a quarter of a million miles further than where any human had gone before to orbit the Moon and see its dark side for the first time with the naked eye.
Yet Lee wrote about a mythical space-faring civilization in the first issue of his classic "Silver Surfer" comic. "We had gone too far--seen too much! And then--we no longer cared.--We of Zenn-La . returned to our mother world--never to venture forth again! For us, the age of space travel had died --- never to be born again."
It was the prescient obituary for both the U.S. and Soviet space programs. It has long been a commonplace cliché to say that the Moon landing and the early, heroic era of space exploration was only made possible by the height of the Cold War and the desperate race for global prestige between the United States and the Soviet Union.
That of course, is true, but the human factor of a handful of visionary political leaders and scientists in both nations also played a crucial role.
Cautious old President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the United States and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin were both interested in rockets as weapons, and weapons only. They showed no interest in the manned conquest of space. But Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the first great political visionary of the Space Age, was very different. It was he who gave Korolev the political backing he needed and access to the vital resources, over-ruling both skittish Politburo members and sneering, skeptical scientific bureaucrats.
The result was a string of dazzling successes from Sputnik I through Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space in 1961 even to the first space walk by Sergei Alexei Leonov. As a result, the Soviet Union catapulted to the greatest global prestige and popularity in its history, eclipsing even that won by its colossal defeat of Nazi Germany in the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War.
Only when President John F. Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower in 1961, was Khrushchev matched by a similar visionary in the United States. It was Kennedy who responded to the Soviet triumph of Gagarin's flight by pledging to send a man to the Moon by the end of the decade. And after his death, the pace of American space exploration actually accelerated as another can-do visionary, Lyndon Baines Johnson, replaced Kennedy in the White House.
But the same crusading, confident energies that propelled Americans and Russians into space also led them to the brink of global nuclear war in the 1961 Berlin crisis and the 1962 confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba. The world stepped back from the brink, and both the United States and the Soviet Union produced a generation of far more cautious leaders. Khrushchev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and LBJ, the principal architect of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, was succeeded by Richard Nixon, who eventually phased U.S. forces out.
And it was no coincidence that Nixon and Brezhnev --the joint architects of superpower détente -- were also the men who switched off the flow of resources for the manned exploration of space. The end of the brief eras of political visionaries marked the end of the leadership of the space programs by scientific visionaries as well.
Men like Werner Von Braun in the U.S. space program and Korolev in the Soviet one were replaced by the likes of Carl Sagan and popularizing physicist Freeman Dyson who argued that unmanned Solar System probes were far more valuable scientifically and far cheaper than manned space exploration. Soviet and U.S. society were changing too. The Soviets remained far more committed to manned space flight than the Americans. But they were starved of resources to do anything with it.
Through the 1980s and early 1990s, they logged an unparalleled number of man-days on their space stations -- tiny, weightless, clunky affairs very different from the luxurious silver cathedral-wheels in space of Kubrick's movie. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis that swept Russia meant Moscow's space program could only crawl along on a shoe string budget. Korolev's dreams were virtually forgotten.
The fate of the U.S. program was even more bizarre. America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which had triumphantly achieved Kennedy's seemingly impossible lunar landing goal by 1969, decayed in the classic manner of government bureaucracies in the following decades and launched one unbelievably uneconomic and costly program after another.
It also became dominated by a generation of scientist-bureaucrats -- in Sagan's image -- with an obsessive hatred of deeper space manned exploration.
By the end of the century, there was a remarkably widely held belief among aerospace engineers in U.S. industry -- totally ignored by the media -- that space exploration would have to be privatized, and NASA's quasi-socialist big government monopoly broken up. Only then, they argued, would cutting-edge but entirely realistic new cost-effective technologies be developed to mine the mineral riches of the Moon and push on into the Solar System.
From 1957 to 1972, the human exploration of space moved at unbelievable speed. Korolev had reason to hope that after spending a full 15 years of his life in the hell of Stalin's Gulag concentration camps, he might yet live to send his cosmonauts to the Moon. Kubrick's great movie too reflected the technological and inventive optimism of the time. Neither of them dreamed that an era of technological stagnation and mediocrity lasting longer than a generation would follow.
But Korolev died in 1966, worn out by the frustrations of dealing with a Brezhnev determined to bury his dream. A few years later, Nixon pulled the plug on America's space visionaries too and NASA went the way of all government bureaucracies -- over-staffed, vastly over-funded and grossly, ineptly incompetent, except at the truly important business of conning the American public and Congress to keep giving it barrelfuls of money.
So maybe the crazed computer HAL in Kubrick's movie had the last laugh after all.
But around the world, an older generation still retains memories of the eerie thrill and wonder they felt as young children when they heard that magic "beep-beep" from Korolev's metal grapefruit broadcasting its short wave radio signals to an amazed human race. A new frontier, far vaster than anything Christopher Colombus and America's Western pioneers had ever dreamed of was suddenly within our grasp. And perhaps, one day in the future, the dreams kindled then will finally be realized.