It is indeed surprising that the golden jubilee of the launch of Sputnik by the erstwhile USSR was so widely commented upon. If the Cold War were still on, this would have been impossible. It would have been simply unacceptable for the West to acknowledge the superiority of the socialist system in stretching the limits of human endeavour.
Sputnik's launch was a path-breaking scientific accomplishment. It unleashed forays into outer space that continue to breach the borders of human knowledge. It was refreshing to hear Michael Griffin, head of the US space agency NASA, laud the launch at a ceremony to mark the occasion at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "I am convinced that the Sputnik accomplishment by the Russian people was responsible for the creation of the American space programme that I head today," he remarked.
Discoveries and inventions based on research in fundamental sciences always have implications and consequences that can never be anticipated. Edison's electric bulb, Marconi's radio and Graham Bell's telephone, all led to technological advances without which the modern world wouldn't have been the same.
Sputnik did likewise. Satellites are tremendously important to our way of life today. Television images, telephone calls, e-mails, cellphones, etc function through signals beamed from satellites. These have virtually turned the world into a global village. Forecasts regarding the weather and climate change would be impossible without the use of satellites, as also the discovery of underground mineral riches. And let's not forget the international space station and the Hubble space telescope, which have vastly enriched our understanding of this planet and the universe.
Over 6,600 satellites have been launched since Sputnik. Of these, close to 1,000 are in active operation, some 600 of them exclusively for communication purposes. Modern civilisation's dependence on these can be gauged from the fact that in May 1998, when a single communication satellite malfunctioned, more than 30 million pagers in the US went silent, credit card payment accruals did not work and radio and television networks went off air.
In what is the 90th anniversary year of the erstwhile Soviet Union, it needs to be realised that all this would have been impossible but for a pumpkin-sized polished sphere that orbited the earth for 23 days.
Announcing Sputnik's successful launch, the Soviet Union had declared, "Artificial earth satellites will pave the way for space travel and it seems that the present generation will witness how the freed and conscious labour of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of man's dreams into reality." It followed this up with the launch of Sputnik II, which carried the dog Laika to observe the effect of weightlessness.
Instead of using these scientific advances for the benefit of humanity as a whole and for achieving higher levels of civilisational advance, the US' reactions were predictably based on its die-hard anti-communism. This was a time when intellectuals and some of the most creative people in the US were being harassed by the Committee of Un-American Activities headed by McCarthy. McCarthyism, as the period came to be known, nurtured a mindset that was summarised by Lyndon B Johnson, the then Senate majority leader. He said Sputnik's launch was a warning that the Soviets would soon build space platforms and drop bombs on America, "like kids dropping rocks on to cars from freeway overpasses". The world was being told that the R-7 rocket that delivered the Sputnik held more significance than the foray into outer space. For this provided the Soviet Union with the capability of nuclear intercontinental missiles, which it did not possess then, unlike the US. Thus, the Cold War, which started with the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was intensified through a mindless nuclear arms race that was carried to the outer space as well.
Soon after Sputnik, the US tried to launch its own satellite, Vanguard. But as the nation watched on live television, the rocket rose just four feet and exploded. Johnson called this "one of the best publicised and most humiliating failures in our history". The panic reached a frenzy in 1961, when the Soviet Union successfully sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit.
President Kennedy is reported to have assured the Americans on national television that by the end of the 1960s, the US would put man on the moon. It finally did in 1969. In the meantime, the Soviets had softlanded a remote craft on the moon.
Though the Cold War may have provided the urge for a competitive edge in space exploration, what is needed to derive maximum benefit for humanity is cooperation. The Hubble telescope sends fascinating photographs and information about the universe. A recent despatch informed us that snuggled in a huge belt of warm dust 424 light years away, an Earth-like planet appears to be forming. It will apparently take 100 million years for the planet to fully form and a billion years for the first signs of life, if at all, to appear.
All this is important since most of the universe — 96 per cent, precisely — is made of dark matter that we still can't fathom. "We think we understand the universe, but we only understand 4 per cent of everything," said James Watson Cronin, the 1980 Nobel laureate for Physics. It is this 96 per cent of matter, pervasive but unidentified, that holds the universe together and accelerates its expansion. Thus, leave alone the question of whether life exists anywhere else in the universe, even how the matter on which we shaped our civilisation came about is still unknown. What is needed to carry forward this man-nature dialectic is cooperation.
Instead, what we see today is renewed aggression by the US to use space as a theatre to display its military might and browbeat the world. In 2002, it withdrew from the 30-year-old ABM Treaty, freeing itself from the commitment not to deploy missile defences in outer space. In 2005, it was the only country in the UN to vote against a ban on space weapons. In 2006, President George W Bush approved a new space policy, rejecting any future space arms controls agreements and working instead to deny access to space to anyone hostile to US interests. Ronald Reagan's 'Star Wars' is being given a tangible shape by US imperialism today.
Those who oppose such US hegemonic designs are often castigated as viewing the world through 'ideological blinkers'. The boot, as always, is on the other foot. It is US imperialism that is not permitting humanity to draw greater advantages through cooperation in scientific endeavours in outer space. Look who's wearing 'ideological' blinkers.
Sitaram Yechury is MP, Rajya Sabha, and member, CPI(M) Politburo.