When people talk about a moment being burned into memory, they usually mean it in a negative way: President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Princess Diana’s fatal car crash, 9/11. The launch of Sputnik 50 years ago this month was different. It certainly had its negative side: no one likes to wake up to find that your nuclear adversary has thrown a shiny ball over your head and that you can’t do a thing about it. But the dawn of the Space Age was also a hopeful event. Visionaries celebrated humanity’s long-awaited climb out of its cradle, and pragmatists soon savored the benefits of communications and weather satellites. Many of today’s scientists and engineers trace their life’s passions to that fast-moving dot in the night sky.
“In his millennia of looking at the stars, man has never faced so exciting a challenge as the year 1957 has suddenly thrust upon him,” astronomers Fred L. Whipple and J. Allen Hynek wrote in the December 1957 issue of Scientific American.