Pardee Center

From Sputnik to Space Tourism

The last half-century has brought a staggering number of achievements in space research, from the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957 to the introduction of space tourism in 2001.

Supriya Chakrabarti, photo by Chris Churchill

Supriya Chakrabarti, photo by Chris Churchill

With new possibilities have come new questions. How can work in space help us avoid global military conflicts? What avenues exist for commercial space projects? Can we meet our energy needs by mining minerals on the moon? Should we plan for space colonization? What are the implications of discovering extraterrestrial life? In short, how can findings in space be used to improve life on Earth?

To address these issues, the Pardee Center, with the leadership of Supriya Chakrabarti, director of BU’s Center for Space Physics, and funding from the Secure World Foundation, organized a three-day conference last spring on the future of space exploration. Marking the 50th anniversary of Sputnik’s launch, some of the world’s top thinkers in the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities, gathered to reflect on five decades of research and to look ahead at the next chapter of journeying into space.

“Space exploration is more of a human endeavor than about one country or one research group.”

What made the event unique, Chakrabarti says, was the opportunity not just to think of space exploration from an astronomer’s or an engineer’s perspective, but to consider it as a wider human effort. A highlight was a session on policymaking in the space-race era of the Cold War, with panelists Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Sergei Khrushchev, son of Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. Another was the keynote address, presented via satellite, by then president of India A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. An aeronautical engineer who led India’s nuclear and space programs, Kalam told participants that it is imperative to apply science to solving problems in developing countries.

Sputnik I, photo from Corbis

Sputnik I, photo from Corbis

“For me, this whole space exploration is more of a human endeavor than about one country or one research group,” Chakrabarti says, adding that despite the competitive nature of space research, there is room for the type of collaboration that can forge long-standing international partnerships.

Conference participants identified critical focus areas, ranging from the need to establish governing rules in space to the value of increasing public participation in space-related discussions. Chakrabarti hopes the conference will serve as a model for future symposia on defining a global space strategy.

“In the past, we all sort of did things on our own. I find it fascinating,” he says, “when we explore the connections among disciplines.”