Half a century ago, Americans awoke to a new world, in some ways much larger than the old one, roused by the beeps of a little metal ball, an artificial moon circling the earth every hour and a half. Called "Sputnik I" (Russian for "co-traveler", not to be confused with "fellow traveler"), its launch stunned the nation.
For over a decade, since the end of the great conflict against fascist totalitarianism, America had stood like a colossus over the rest of the war-torn world, confident in its ability to remain ahead of its adversaries technologically. We had, after all, developed the long-range bomber, the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the computer, transistors... Most were probably unaware that their own nation was developing space launchers and satellites, but if they had been aware, they would have been sure that we would be first in that as well. That we were not--that we were beaten to the punch by the Soviets, our new totalitarian enemy in the Cold War, came as a shock to the public, and one that the Eisenhower administration, in its own careful and deliberate development of such capabilities, with a public emphasis on civilian applications (e.g., the International Geophysical Year), hadn't anticipated.
To compound matters, almost five months later, when we did finally launch our own satellite, Explorer I, it was derided by Soviet Premiere Nikita Kruschev as "a grapefruit," being so much smaller than Sputnik, which weighed almost two hundred pounds. Ironically, one of the reasons that the Soviets had much greater launch capability than ours was because of their technological inferiority--it was much easier to build a large ICBM (from which the space launcher was derived) than it was to miniaturize the fusion weapons that the Soviets were developing (with aid, we now know, from the Rosenbergs) that the missile would have to deliver.
But the damage to our self perception was done, and the notion that the Russians were leading in what was viewed as the new military "high ground" (though its value for that purpose was often overstated, then and now), resulted in a frenzy of policy making, and kicked off the space race of the 1960s.
In the mid-1950s, many science fiction writers, such as Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, were predicting that men would walk on the moon. But none of them were so bold in their predictions as to claim that it would happen in the coming decade. It made no sense--there was a logical progression to such things. In 1958, we could barely toss a few pounds into orbit, and in the first year of launch attempts, three out of four had failed. The notion that we would be sending people into space, in a couple years, let alone all the way to the moon within a few more, seemed like too far out a prediction even for a visionary writer of fiction.
But what would have seemed even more fantastic was the notion that, having landed men on the moon in the late sixties, the last one would trod on the regolith a few years later, and there would be no return for half a century. That was beyond science fiction, into the realm of dystopian fantasy.
Yet, in part because of the Sputnik panic, that's exactly what happened. In our rush to regain the technological lead over the Soviets, we took what tools we had at hand--ballistic missiles (expendable by their nature) and converted them to space transportation vehicles. Very expensive, very unreliable space transportation vehicles. It established the paradigm for how we would get into space with which we live to this day, as demonstrated by the fact that NASA is going "back to the future," developing yet another expendable launch vehicle family to take us back to the moon. This hurried approach ignored an entirely different branch of technological evolution, one modeled on aircraft, in which reusable, piloted vehicles would fly higher, and faster, eventually all the way to orbit. Such an approach, if successfully implemented, could potentially have given us reliable, affordable space transportation. What it wouldn't have done is to put men on the moon by 1969, which was the paramount goal at the time.
But if we had taken a more measured, systematic, natural approach to the development of space, unhurried by the Sputnik panic, while there are no guarantees, we might today have the spinning orbital space stations of the movie 2001, affordable transportation in cis-lunar space, the bases on the moon that NASA currently plans for the third decade of this century, perhaps even trips to, and bases on Mars.
We will never know, of course--history doesn't allow do overs. Or at least, not in any exact form. But it's not too late to decide whether our current approach is as flawed now as it was then, at least with regard to opening the high frontier. On the fiftieth anniversary of the dawn of the old space age, it's perhaps time to think about ushering in a new one.