By Brandon Wallace
On Oct. 4, 1957, communist Russia cast Sputnik I — a metal ball no larger than a beach ball — into the sky as the first foreign object to orbit the Earth.
Fifty years later, Americans still celebrate what eventually brought a flurry of reform and a mass of funding to science and math programs across the country; but the future of space exploration—and how it fits the U.S. agenda—may remain a question.
“Once Sputnik was launched, the whole country changed,” said UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal, who was a professor of astrophysics before becoming UCSC’s top administrator. “It was scarier than hell to think the Russians would be ahead of us scientifically.”
The U.S. government subsequently poured funds into the development of math and science education, consequently creating the generation of scientists that took the United States to the moon, a feat that occurred just 12 years after Sputnik’s launch.
Now, 50 years later, the space-race is still on, but the world has something new in sight: Mars.
While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has begun preliminary research by mapping the chemical and mineral makeup of the surface of the Red Planet, Russia has taken the initiative with an intensive program that aims to get humans on Mars by 2015.
Adriane Steinacker, adjunct professor of astronomy, said, “Knowing what kind of physical conditions are to be expected during a mission is crucial to its development, and subsequently to its efficiency and success.”
This time Russia will not work independently, but will call on the help of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to form an international team for space exploration, an effort Chancellor Blumenthal supports: “I don’t think countries should be undertaking space exploration on their own,” he said. “It should be done cooperatively and internationally.”
But while space exploration may be thriving, the technology required for such ambitious endeavors leaves some skeptical of treading on such dangerous ground.
Darwin BondGraham, who graduated from UCSC in 2003 and is working on a doctorate degree in sociology at UC Santa Barbara, is an active member of the UC Demilitarization Coalition. The group’s aim is to disband the UC’s involvement with the laboratory facilities in New Mexico and California that not only develop nuclear weapons, but also develop the technology needed for space exploration.
“The status, the prestige, and the idea that the university is doing things for the public good.I think that all is being utilized by the weapons labs and by the people who have an interest in maintaining the weapons laboratories,” BondGraham said.
But not everyone sees the connection between space exploration and nuclear weapons; energy research is mostly delegated to the Department of Energy (DOE), and space exploration to NASA.
Regardless of the weapons labs’ ties to space exploration, UCSC still plays an integral role in space. The university has developed strong math and science departments, and in 1984, Katherine Sullivan, a UCSC alumna, became the first U.S. woman to walk in space, while UCSC alumnus Steve Holly flew on a number of NASA missions.
“UC Santa Cruz has contributed in a number of ways through technology and our engineering school, scientific studies, and planetary studies,” Chancellor Blumenthal said. “We have some of the top people in planetary studies, and exploring the solar system.”
Blumenthal continued, “We share a common faith with people of the world, and for us to comment on the solar system around us is a wonderful cause, almost a good cause, for us to get together and act as one world.”