STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week, we're remembering the start of the space age. It began on this day 50 years ago when the Soviet Union sent a basketball-sized satellite into orbit. The satellite was called Sputnik and it's successful launch ushered in vast changes in exploration and in relations between two superpowers.

For commentator Andrew Chaikin, it was the start of a more personal journey.

ANDREW CHAIKIN: This is the sound of my childhood.

(Soundbite of recording)

CHAIKIN: Gemini astronaut Ed White making the first American walk in space in June 1965.

(Soundbite of recording)

CHAIKIN: 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."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Men Into Space")

Unidentified Man #1: The story you were about to see has not happened - yet. These are scenes from that story that will happen when men will colonize the moon and discover how to live there.

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

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): I only go in a fraction of an inch, maybe an eight of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine sandy particles.

CHAIKIN: 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.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man #2: That was green for touchdown.

Unidentified Man #3: ATS is green, 1.5 degrees per second max (unintelligible) two G's.

Unidentified Man #2: Touchdown. We have a touchdown.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible) We're looking good.

CHAIKIN: As I witnessed the first pictures from the surface of Mars, I still 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 we need to keep exploring space. 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.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Man Into Space")

Unidentified Man #1: This is the story of the future, when a group of dedicated man risked their lives on the first flight to the red planet Mars.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Andrew Chaikin, he's author of "A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of Apollo Astronauts."

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