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Sputnik, Space Race Mirror a Personal Journey

"Okay, my feet are out. Okay, he's out. He's floating free,"

This is the sound of my childhood.

"Am I in your view, Jimbo?"

Gemini Astronaut Ed White making the first American walk in space, in June 1965.

"Okay, I'm coming over; coming back to you!"

It was a few weeks before my ninth birthday, and there couldn't have been a better time to be a kid. Amazing things were happening — but they were things I'd been waiting for. I'd been reading about them in books on space travel, and seeing them on TV, in shows like Men Into Space.

That was the wonderful thing about growing up in the early years of the space age. Every day, science fiction was turning into fact. And by the summer I turned 13, I witnessed Neil Armstrong taking the first footsteps on the moon.

I knew all of this was happening because of the Cold War. Getting to the moon meant the U.S. had beaten the Soviet Union in the space race that had begun with Sputnik. But to me, it wasn't about geopolitics; it was about exploration.

By the time I was in college, Apollo had ended, and only robots were going to other planets. But there were still amazing explorations, and I got to be part of one: The first Mars landing, Viking 1 in July of 1976. I was at NASA's Jet Propulsion laboratory as a student intern on the mission, and I had a front row seat.

As I witnessed the first pictures from the surface of Mars, I felt the same passion for space exploration I'd had as a kid. And I've never lost it.

I know people still ask why space exploration is important, why we need to keep going. After all, the Cold War is long over. But the story that began 50 years ago is about something more important than national prestige or politics. It's about the very essence of who we are. We are made to be explorers. We're meant to make discoveries.

I can only imagine what today's kids will witness in the next 50 years in space.

Some of them could grow up to live on the moon, or take the first footsteps on Mars. What began with Sputnik is just the opening chapter in a story that has no end. It will last as long as we do, as long as we keep exploring.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Chaikin