Today’s Tidbits: October 4, 2017 — 60th Anniversary of the Space Age

Today’s Tidbits: October 4, 2017 — 60th Anniversary of the Space Age

Here are our tidbits for today, October 4, 2017:  recaps of an event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Space Age and a congressional hearing on production of Pu-238 for NASA missions. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

The 60th Anniversary of the Space Age

Sixty years ago today, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, ushering in the Space Age.  Euronews, in cooperation with ESA, produced a really good 8 1/2 minute video summary of events at the time and what they’ve led to over the decades — with cooperation supplanting competition between the United States and Russia.

Asif Siddiqi, Fordham University, speaking at the Wilson Center, October 4, 2017. Screengrab.

Asif Siddiqi, author of the seminal book “Challenge to Apollo:  The Soviet Union and the Space Race,” has published the first of two parts of an article in The Space Review [] about what was going on in the Soviet space program in the years before the launch.  He also spoke at a panel organized by the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. today on The Space Race and the Origins of the Space Age.

He makes the case that the “space race” began before Sputnik, not after it was launched.  In the 1954-1955 time period, the Soviet Union was focused on the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), not space.  Soviet Chief Designer Sergey Korolev was trying to convince the Soviet leadership to use that technology for a space program. At the same time in the United States, Wernher von Braun was leading a team at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal developing U.S. ICBMs.

According to Siddiqi, Korolev convinced the Soviet media to publish articles about the future of space travel and creation of a commission to study interplanetary space, which got the attention of the U.S. CIA, which considered it evidence that the Soviets were getting ready to launch something into space, which led to the U.S. announcement in 1955 that we would launch a satellite as part of the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year.  Korolev used the U.S. announcement to convince Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the Politburo to approve his use of an ICBM to place a satellite into space first.  Sputnik was the result.

Michael Neufeld from the National Air and Space Museum said that the American public did not immediately react with hysteria or shock as many believe.  The response was more gradual.  Only after the launch of Sputnik 2 in November carrying a dog (Laika) and the “humiliating” failure of the first U.S. space launch (Vanguard) in December did the public grow increasingly worried that the United States had fallen behind the Soviets technologically.

The rest, as they say, is history.  The United States won the space race by landing men on the Moon in 1969, although Siddiqi interjected that the Russians insist THEY won the space race because their goal post is who put the first man into space — that would be Yuri Gagarin, who made one orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961.

The panel focused as much on the future as the past. Former astronaut Robert Curbeam, now with Raytheon, remarked on how much has changed in the U.S.-Russian relationship.  Today, the two are partners on the International Space Station.  He said he routinely interacted with Russian cosmonauts during his years in the astronaut corps as well as astronauts from other ISS partner nations.  While national pride is always a factor, he found that each country brings something to the table that helps accomplish the mission.

Clay Mowry, a Vice President at Blue Origin, said that his company is not into competition at all.  Instead, it is taking whatever time is needed to develop safe launch vehicles for putting people into space to achieve company founder Jeff Bezos’ goal of having a million people living and working in space.

What did the “Sputnik moment” mean in the long run?  Siddiqi called it an anomaly that galvanized the political process to do something at that time, but probably cannot be replicated.

House Hearing on Production of Pu-238 for Powering NASA Missions

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report today, requested by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, looking at production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) for NASA missions.  Pu-238 fuels radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) that provide electrical power and warmth for NASA spacecraft that travel too far from the Sun to use solar power or land on surfaces where sunlight is not always available.  The committee held a hearing on the report this morning.

The Department of Energy (DOE) manages the nation’s nuclear stockpile and over the history of the space program has manufactured the Pu-238 and RTGs for NASA.  Questions have arisen over DOE’s management of the program and whether there will be sufficient Pu-238 to meet NASA’s needs into the future.  DOE plans to be able to produce 1.5 kilograms per year of Pu-238 by 2025.  NASA has 35 kilograms of it now, but only half of that is usable.  The remainder needs to be mixed with new Pu-238 that DOE is producing.

A 2009 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warned that a shortage was looming, but the situation has changed since then.  Study co-chair Ralph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab told the committee today that after the Obama Administration cancelled the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020,  Pu-238 requirements dropped considerably.

Now it is needed only for robotic planetary exploration missions. NASA’s David Schurr said the only approved mission requiring Pu-238 is the Mars 2020 rover and there is enough for it.  NASA also is allowing scientists to propose missions requiring Pu-238 for the next New Frontiers (NF) competitive opportunity (NF-4) and possibly the next one (NF-5) as well as a potential flagship mission for launch in 2030. It expects the current planned production rate to be sufficient.

Committee members asked whether other countries or commercial companies might require U.S. Pu-238 for their own missions.  Schurr said no such requests have been made yet, but NASA and DOE are looking at ways to increase production if the need arises.

Check our Twitter feed (@SpcPlcyOnline) for our live tweets from the hearing.


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