Echoes of Sputnik in Modern Rocket Race for Space

Fifty four years after the first Sputnik, is a new race for space brewing?

The fierce Cold War boiled over with the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara answered with the legendary Nike-Zeus program, a six-year project to develop the Army's first antiballistic missile. General Ivey O. Drewry Jr., the man who led the follow-on Nike-X program from 1962-1969, tells that McNamara's demands were blunt and clear: Get the job done and beat those Russians.

"I was reviewing the development of the Sprint missile, which had gone through about 12 months of failure," the 95-year old retired general said from his home in Huntsville, Alabama. "I was reviewing the details with him, what we learned and how we'll improve. His answer to me was 'Shut up and sit down, I know you're gonna make it work!'"

"What he wanted hear was, what was the Russian reaction?" Drewry said.

The U.S. answer was clear: If Russia wanted a space race, America was all in.

The Nike-Zeus program hit technological limitations in the areas of missile design and communications integration, so the Kennedy Administration created the more robust Nike-X Program in 1963. The project offered a new terminal interceptor, high-speed computers and other technological advancements that enabled the country to battle Russia in the area of missile defense.

"We moved from the radar system used in World War II, where we rotated the lens, to a phased array, which is an electronic phase of small radar beams that could be rotated around electronically,” said the retired general.

Even the small details of the unrelenting and demanding space race of the 60s are still fresh Drewry's memory.

Today, the stable of competitors has dramatically increased to include China and India -- and the pressure is back on. China had a record-breaking 2010, launching 15 satellites from its Xi Chiang Satellite Launch Center. India's Chandrayaan-1 revealed the presence of large amounts of water on the moon during the country's first lunar mission in 2008.

And if you take into account President Obama's recent decision to end NASA's Constellation program and shift attention to more commercial launch operations, experts wonder, is the United States even participating in the current space race?

“I was opposed to the decision to end the Constellation program, as it was not replaced with a clear way forward for human space exploration,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told “It also created more uncertainties for industry, in an already difficult environment, in adapting to the end of the Space Shuttle program."

The uncertainty is something Pace feels the U.S. should address sooner rather than later.

“The United States, and NASA in particular, needs to have a clear, mission-driven focus on human space exploration.,” said Pace. “This should start with utilization of the International Space Station, followed by returning humans to the moon, and laying the technical and organizational foundations for eventual missions to Mars and other objects in the solar system. Space technology can not be effectively developed without a defined and sustainable commitment to a logical process of exploration.”

As far as Drewry. is concerned, the very idea of a new space race is non-existent. He feels something is missing from the current competition between the United States and its fellow space technology competitors, China, India and Russia: combat.

“We're not involved in war today, we're not trying to beat anybody,” said Drewry. “Our objective was to develop technology and the Department of Defense's objective was to fight a Cold War."

With that said, he's optimistic that the United States will still be the front-runner when it comes to space technology in the future.

I'm sure improvements are being made," Drewry said. "Because as you know, technology never really ends.”