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Back to the Start of Space Race in Beyond Planet Earth

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On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1, the first man-made satellite to successfully orbit the Earth, its beeping signal picked up by radio operators around the globe. Weighing in at just under 184 pounds and measuring 22.8 inches in diameter, Sputnik soared to space amid the tensions of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, creating significant political and scientific fallout. A life-sized model of the satellite, whose name means “fellow traveler” in Russian, is featured in the current exhibition Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration.

Beyond Planet Earth_Sputnik_thumbnail

Sputnik model featured in Beyond Planet Earth.

©AMNH/D. Finnin 


Sputnik’s success sparked a space race in which the U.S. would eventually claim victory when it landed a crew on the Moon on July 20, 1969. But the story of jockeying for supremacy in space obscures the lasting, positive legacy of Sputnik— the myriad technological advances that this first leap into space inspired and the countless subsequent satellites that have seemingly compressed distances on Earth while expanding our knowledge of the vast universe beyond.

Unmanned missions have explored every planet in the solar system and continue to travel beyond it, seeking images of the oldest, most distant galaxies. The International Space Station has hosted more than 200 men and women from countries around the world who conduct experiments and live and work in space.

Private companies are also in the mix, developing commercial vehicles to ferry astronauts, private citizens, and cargo beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists talk of lunar bases, elevators from the Moon to Earth, mining asteroids, sending manned missions to Mars, and even creating a habitable environment there for humans through a process called terraforming. 

“We’ve made some fabulous discoveries but there’s much more yet to learn,” says astrophysicist Michael Shara, curator of Beyond Planet Earth. “In the next 50, 75, 100, 300 years, if we put our minds to it, the solar system can be ours, the detection of life beyond Earth can be ours, and eventually all of the stars in the Milky Way, the 200 billion stars, the trillion planets can be ours to explore. We just have to have the will to do it.”

Don’t miss Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration, on view until Sunday, August 12.

A version of this story originally appeared in Rotunda, the Member magazine. 

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