Russia Marks Sputnik Launch Anniversary

Thursday, October 4th 2007, 6:16 pm
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia on Thursday celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch that opened the space age, with officials seeking to revive the glory of the Soviet program, although some experts worry about a loss of momentum for new missions.

Goose-stepping guards and medal-bedecked space veterans laid flowers at the tomb of the father of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolyov, at the foot of the Kremlin wall.

``We are rightly proud that it was our nation that opened the way to stars for the humanity,'' President Vladimir Putin said in a statement marking the launch of Sputnik, Earth's first artificial satellite, on Oct. 4, 1957.

The launch of the beachball-sized satellite caused a global furor and prompted the U.S. to build up its own space program quickly, entering a race it ultimately won when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in July 1969.

NASA's top official hailed the achievements of both countries _ and their cooperation of recent years.

``Without Sputnik, there would have been no Apollo,'' NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in a speech at a gathering of Russian and foreign space scientists. ``We have much learned from each other and I think we can go farther together than either of us can go separately.''

Sputnik was born as an impromptu byproduct of a frantic Soviet effort to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of slamming a heavy hydrogen warhead into the United States. The R-7 missile's high thrust and payload capacity, unmatched at the time, made it the perfect vehicle to launch objects into orbit.

Korolyov, the visionary head of the Soviet rocket program and a tough manager, persuaded a reluctant Soviet leadership and top military brass to launch the first satellite into orbit. Aware of U.S. plans to launch a satellite in 1958, Korolyov's team built a simple satellite in less than three months.

After a successful launch, they did not immediately grasp the magnitude of their achievement.

``Of course, speaking just for us specialists (the launch) sparked an unexpected furor around the world. No one expected this, even including our engineers,'' Viktor Frusmon, a co-worker of Korolyov's, said in a televised comments Thursday.

The U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, on Jan. 31, 1958, about four months after Sputnik.

The Soviet Union scored another milestone on April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go to space.

When President Kennedy announced the moon landing program, Korolyov rushed to Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev to seek funds to compete with the Americans.

But Khrushchev saw a moon race as a waste of money, according to his son, Sergei, now a senior fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.

``Nikita Sergeyevich didn't want to take part in the moon race,'' Sergei Khrushchev told The Associated Press in a recent interview. ``Food and housing were the top priorities.''

Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, approved some spending for a Soviet moon program. But it was underfunded and badly hampered by rifts between Korolyov and other designers, delaying booster rocket development.

``Indeed, when the space race of the 1960s was over, it may be said that we in America lost some of our own momentum, some of our own desire to accomplish things in space for their own sake,'' Griffin said.

After decades of rivalry, Russia and the United States have developed close cooperation in space. Russian spacecraft now ferry crews and cargo to the International Space Station, and the two nations also collaborate on other missions.

On Wednesday, Griffin and Russian Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov signed an agreement to put Russian scientific instruments on board U.S. probes that would be sent to the moon and Mars to search for potential water deposits.

Russia's space program was badly hurt by the post-Soviet economic turmoil, but funding has increased in recent years amid a boom in oil prices.

``Unique space technologies make Russia really competitive,'' Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the lower house of Russian parliament said during a visit Thursday to a space factory. ``The space program is back in the focus of government's attention.''

He promised to bolster allocations for the program.

The Russian agency, however, has dragged its feet on ordering a replacement to the 40-year-old Soyuz spacecraft and seems reluctant to pursue ambitious new missions.

``It's wrong to lose tempo now when technology is developing at a rapid pace,'' said Nikolai Sevastyanov, the former head of the state-controlled RKK Energiya company, Russia's leading rocket manufacturer, who lost his job earlier this year after criticizing the space agency for moving too slowly.