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50 years on, Sputnik's legacy still in orbit

Satellites keep making Earth a smaller place

WASHINGTON - With a series of small beeps from a spiky globe 50 years ago today, the world shrank and humanity's view of Earth and the cosmos expanded.

Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched by the Soviets and circled the globe on Oct. 4, 1957. The Space Age was born. And what followed were changes to everyday life that people now take for granted.

What we see on television, how we communicate with one another, and how we pay for what we buy have all changed with the birth of satellites.

Communications satellites helped bring wars and celebrations from thousands of miles away into our living rooms. Weather satellites show us whether we need to carry an umbrella or flee a hurricane. And global positioning system satellites even keep us from getting lost on unfamiliar streets.

Sputnik gave birth to more than mere technology. The threat of a Soviet-dominated space spurred the US government to increase tenfold the money spent on science, education, and research. Satellite pictures of Earth inspired an embryonic environmental movement.

Spy and communications satellites also have been a tool of peace, historians say. Just last week, scientists used commercial satellite images to document human rights violations in Burma.

When Sputnik was launched, the public thought a space future would consist of gigantic space stations and colonies on the moon and other planets. The fear was of warfare in space raining down on Earth.

"The reality is that the things we expected did not come to pass, and the things that we did not fathom changed our lives in so many ways that we cannot even envision a life that's different at this point," said Roger Launius, senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

America got a taste of that in May 1998, when just one communications satellite malfunctioned. More than 30 million pagers went silent. Credit card payment approvals didn't work. National Public Radio and CNN's Airport Television Network went off the air in some places.

"The civilization we live in today is as different from the one that we lived in the mid-1950s as the mid-1950s were from the American Revolution," said Howard McCurdy, a public policy professor at American University. "It's hard to imagine these things happening without space. I guess I could have a computer, but I wouldn't be able to get on the Internet."

All thanks to an 184-pound metal ball with spikes, shot into space by a country that doesn't exist anymore.

Because Sputnik was launched by a centralized communist government, people feared that space would help totalitarianism, said Steve Usselman, a professor of history at Georgia Tech University.

However, satellites "clearly undermined state authority, particularly national authority," Usselman said. "It's taken us in exactly the opposite direction."

As satellites went commercial, they spurred on financial markets, opened up information to people across the globe - which is not what centralized governments want, Usselman said.

Spy satellites also enabled countries to keep an eye on their enemies.

"Except for crazy guys in airplanes, nobody can pull off a sneak attack," McCurdy said. "I think it made the world much less dangerous than it was in 1956."

President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1967 that it was thanks to satellites that "we know how many missiles the enemy has and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were doing things we didn't need to do. We were building things we didn't need to build. We were harboring fears we didn't need to harbor."

Weather satellites now give people a more accurate view of threats from nature, as well as vastly improved everyday forecasts, said Keith Seitter of the American Meteorological Society. They save lives when hurricanes approach, giving days of notice instead of hours.

"It's very hard to be surprised these days with the kind of data we have available with satellites," Seitter said. "Certainly 50 years ago that wasn't the case."

In television, satellite communications let upstart networks like HBO, CNN, and ESPN develop and feed cable systems via satellite. That brought world events live to people around the globe.

Henry Lambright, a professor at Syracuse University, said satellites have had practical benefits, but "the more important benefits are looking at Earth as a whole, and looking outward."

Initial pictures of Earth from space, especially Apollo images from the moon, were embraced by an environmental movement to show how fragile the planet is.

"The launch of Sputnik actually triggered heightened interest among the American people, not only in space, but in science, mathematics, and education," said White House science adviser John Marburger. "It also opened up people's eyes to the possibility that space could actually be used for something."

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