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In the beginning there was the Sputnik, next stop Mars

60 years after the historic record established by the Soviets, the race to the red planet brings the world’s major space agencies together

“Beep…beep…beep”. The signal emitted by Sputnik 1 launched by the Soviet Union sixty years ago during the night between 4 and 5 October marked the beginning of the race to space and of the use of satellites. But that's not all. From the Oval Office at the White House to the Pentagon, from Congress to the Department of State, that “beep” repeated three times every second announced that Moscow had achieved strategic superiority: it was the demonstration that Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles could hit the United States whenever and however they wanted. File footage shows American citizens observing the sky with the naked eye and with all kinds of binoculars and telescopes.

 

Their expressions are those of curiosity and disbelief and their faces are tense. Those black and white images show us a population accustomed to the fear of a nuclear holocaust. In 1951, the CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) system was already functioning in the United States and it allowed the government to interrupt all radio and TV broadcasting in order to transmit an emergency signal that would warn all citizens to flee to the fallout shelters. Luckily, the CONELRAD was never activated, but was tested regularly in order to teach the Americans to recognize it. A disturbing warning, reminding everyone that daily life in the 1950s, which was laboriously dedicated (not only in America) to reconstruction following the Second World War, was also pondering over the possibility of an atomic war. The ruling class in Washington was well aware of these implications and reacted coolly, starting from Dwight D. Eisenhower, the brilliant and diplomatic general who had defeated the Nazis. Three days after the launch of the Sputnik, on 7 October, in a radio and television message to the nation on “science in national security” this is how Eisenhower reassured Americans and allies: “It is my conviction, supported by trusted scientific and military advisers, that, although the Soviets are quite likely ahead in some missile and special areas, and are obviously ahead of us in satellite development, as of today the overall military strength of the free world is distinctly greater than that of the communist countries.”

 

With those words, Eisenhower underlined the importance of science - in this case that of space research - in man's activities, both those linked to security and to knowledge and the creation of new and useful services for society. After that day, 4 October 1957, history did indeed take a different course. With ups and downs, the competitive and strategic race to space - which was won by the United States with the moon landing of Armstrong, Buzz and Aldrin - was enriched by the precious collaboration between the world's most important space agencies (among which the Italian Space Agency). This effort culminated in the International Space Station that, thanks to its technological, scientific and diplomatic success, recently witnessed a unanimous decision made by the participating countries, among which Italy, regarding the extension of its operational activity until at least 2024.

 

 

However, the page is now being turned. At the International Astronautical Congress, recently held in Adelaide in Australia, the future of human exploration into deep space was discussed. Within the next ten years, astronauts will pass from the low orbits of the International Space Station to the cislunar orbits, which draw a figure eight between the Earth and the moon. This is a fundamental step towards the exploration of Mars, which is the most scientifically interesting planet in the Solar System for research into the origins of life and for possible human colonization. This is a discussion and an effort that, unlike sixty years ago, brings together all the most important space agencies in the world, including the Chinese and Indian ones.

 

The plan aims to construct cislunar bases, beginning in 2030, and then create a moonbase, at the south pole. These will be outposts from which the conquest of the Red Planet will be launched between 2030 and 2040. The world of space has changed and this is evident in the fact that, in Adelaide, Australia announced the establishment of its own space agency, as well as New Zealand's entry as a member of the International Astronautical Federation. The new world looks systematically into space, with new forms of intelligence, new industries and new opportunities. This is a very positive fact that bodes well for the future of science and that of the space economy. Meanwhile, we are celebrating and honouring the Sputnik, which means travel companion in Russian. The first of a great many satellites that, every day, accompany the journey of the most beautiful and complex spacecraft of all: the Earth.