As a survivor of the Cold War, I can’t help but feel there is something missing these days without the Soviet Menace. I mean, the Soviets, despite being the alleged evil empire, did prompt us to shift into gear on more than one occasion. Before the Eagle had landed, the Soviets had already sent a satellite and an astronaut into space. Not bad. Anything that could whip Ike into a tizzy is worth mentioning. He quickly called for the creation of both NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in 1958.
NASA, declaring “For the Benefit of All,” moved quickly, launching the Explorer 1 satellite on January 31, 1958. Led by the former head of the German rocket program, Wernher von Braun, NASA immediately began to explore the possibility of sending human beings into space. Dubbed Project Mercury, this program involved seven original astronauts, of whom, Alan Shepard became the first American into space, while John Glenn would become the first American to orbit the earth.
But this did not mean we had achieved space supremacy. With the Space Race underway, NASA began implementing a new tracking system, called the Global Positioning System (GPS). The system involved the use of satellites to track the position and location of both spacecraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Initially developed by the Navy, the first successful GPS tracking system was dubbed Transit, and used five satellites to triangulate positions around the globe.
In 1983, the GPS system, which had been used exclusively by the military, would be unleashed on the private sector. In that year, a Soviet interceptor aircraft shot down the civilian Korean Air airliner KAL 007, killing all 269 people on board. The plane had strayed into Soviet airspace and although the Soviet had probable cause to destroy the perceived threat, it was determined had the airliner had accurate navigational systems, the tragedy could have been avoided. President Ronald Reagan subsequently announced that civilians and civilian agencies should have access to the GPS tracking systems.
From the Space Race to racing down the highway, a GPS system is guiding us. Not only has it become the preeminent navigational system for cars, but the scientific community has used it to track wild and domestic animals and migration patterns. Law enforcement uses GPS tracking to find stolen cars and keep tabs on criminals on bail or probation. Now, not only can someone find where they are on a city grid, but also he or she can find nearby businesses and restaurants. The uses, and the wonders, never end.
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