Originally Published: August 14, 2012 9:57 p.m.
Russia started it all in the fall of 1957, when it launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space. Humbled and shocked by Russia's success and motivated by one-upmanship of its global competitor, the United States jumped with vigor into the space race.
Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961 and, in that same year, President Kennedy challenged the country to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Smaller victories in space for both the United States and Russia continued, and in 1969 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin met Kennedy's challenge. They became the first men on the moon. Armstrong might have flubbed his line when he stepped onto the lunar surface from Apollo 11, but his meaning over this spectacular achievement was clear. It was "one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind," he said.
Over time, we have almost come to take the U.S. space program for granted. It has been extraordinarily successful, notwithstanding setbacks such as the loss of two shuttles and their astronauts - the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.
Billions of dollars and 30 years later, the shuttle program bid adieu to space with the final and picture-perfect landing of Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. Its final journey dropped off a year's worth of food and supplies at the International Space Station.
So, what's next as America forges ahead in space pioneering? In 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation that focuses the National Aeronautical Space Administration on exploring Mars and the asteroids. The International Space Station will be at the center, with American astronauts still aboard. International partners - Russia, Europe and Japan - will continue to carry up cargo loads to the space station. Russia will ferry American astronauts to the orbiting lab until private industry is ready to fly people up in the next three to five years.
Renewed interest has been inspired by Curiosity, the one-ton rover that landed on Mars on Aug. 6 and has begun transmitting intriguing information about the Red Planet. Already, the U.S. space program has given answers about the Earth. And we can't underestimate the technology that would have been slow to develop if not for our ventures into space: ear thermometers, smoke detectors, handheld vacuum cleaners, water filters, ergonomic furniture, foam insulation, portable X-ray machines, concentrated and dehydrated food items ... the list goes on and on.
The rover's name is apt because it describes man's insatiable appetite to learn more about the cosmos.
Indeed, with Curiosity, we have reached another exciting threshold.