On October 4, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, the world's first-ever man-made satellite, into Earth orbit.
The launch sparked fear in the United States that America would fall behind the Soviet Union in science, technology and space exploration, giving birth to the "space race." President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the creation of NASA and a wide range of other programs designed to boost American technological know-how. His successor, John F. Kennedy, vowed to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s -- and we did.
It was understood at the time that space would eventually and inevitably be "conquered," and that developing the ability to travel into space would involve the invention of technologies that would boost the economy and benefit mankind generally.
That space would be explored was a foregone conclusion in the 1950s. The only question was: Who would lead the world into the Space Age: The "Evil Empire," or the "Free World"? And who would gain the economic advantages of overcoming all the technical hurdles required for successful space flight?
The space race did, in fact, lead to countless unforeseen technologies and economic benefits that experts say paid for the whole thing and then some. NASA facilities in the South created employment and economic development. Technologies first created for the space race accelerated the development of computers, and made possible inventions such as the cell phone.
It also made possible what many consider the pinnacle of human achievement: Men playing golf on the moon.
Although a federal agency and tax dollars drove the countless achievements and myriad benefits of space exploration, the trend these days is toward increasing privatization, with private companies launching satellites -- and soon, even tourists -- into space.
The "Sputnik" of our age launched this week
An event happened this week that I consider the "Sputnik" of our own age. More than 50 years after the Russians launched the world's first orbiting satellite, HTC on Wednesday launched the HTC MAX 4G -- the world's first WiMAX cell phone. In Russia! The phone is in fact an integrated GSM and WiMAX handset that will take advantage of Scartel's Yota WiMAX network.
WiMAX is considered one of the "4G" technologies that will replace the current "3G" mobile broadband systems available to iPhone 3G and BlackBerry Bold users in the United States.