Space chiefs hail Sputnik as start of space age

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MOSCOW, Oct 4 (Reuters) World space chiefs on Thursday celebrated 50 years since the launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, marked the start of the space age.

People across the planet gasped in 1957 when the Soviet Union fired the 87-kg Sputnik into orbit and took the lead in the Cold War space race with the US .

''I am convinced that the Sputnik accomplishment by the Russian people was responsible for the creation of the American space programme that I head today,'' NASA administrator Michael Griffin told space veterans at Russia's Academy of Science.

The ceremony was one of a number commemorating the Sputnik anniversary in Russia. Earlier, military officials laid flowers at the Kremlin Wall grave of Sputnik mastermind Sergei Korolyov.

''Without Sputnik there would have been no Apollo. Indeed when the space race of the 1960s was over, it may be said that we in America lost some of our own momentum,'' said Griffin, referring to the Apollo project, which put a man on the moon in 1969.

The world would be very different today without the satellites that followed on from Sputnik and now ensure communications, help people find directions, spy on foes and track the weather across the globe.

Although it would dictate the course of his life, top Russian top space scientist Alexander Basilevsky recalled being too busy celebrating his 20th birthday at a scientific camp in Siberia to be impressed when Sputnik beeped a signal to earth.

He saw no practical use for it.

''Of course we were drinking some vodka and singing, but when I heard this on the radio, I wasn't interested at all,'' he said.

Enjoying his 70th birthday, Basilevsky explained how he spent the rest of his working life studying planetary surfaces.

He helped pick the location for Russian robotic lunar landings in the 1960s and is now working on Russia's 2009 mission to the Martian moon of Phobos, the country's first major space project in over a decade.

NEW MONEY Russia's space programme went through a difficult period during the chaotic decade following the Soviet Union's collapse but now has a budget of 487 billion roubles (.5 billion) for the period from 2006-15.

These days, Russia and the United States also cooperate on some aspects of space exploration. They signed a pact to use Russian technology on future NASA missions to seek water on the moon and Mars.

Basilevsky and colleague Andrei Ivanov confirmed as ''more or less'' true the often-told story that at the height of the space race the United States spent millions developing a pen to work in space, while the Soviets settled for an ordinary pencil.

''When you don't have much, you must be inventive and that's sometimes what drove our success,'' said Ivanov, laughing.

Proudly displaying his row of Soviet-era medals, Efraim Akim, 78, remembered working on the 1966 Luna-9 mission, the first to succeed in making a soft landing on the moon and sending back photos.

Wistfully recalling the achievements in the early years of space exploration, Jean-Jacques Dordain, the director general of the European Space Agency, said a fresh spurt of discovery would entice another generation into space research.

Other scientists looked as excited as teenagers at their first pop concert.

''Sputnik changed my life though I was only born two years afterwards,'' said Dr David Greenspoon, a NASA scientist seconded to the European Space Agency for the Venus Express project.

Rekindling something of the old spirit of competition, Boris Gryzlov, leader of Russia's biggest political party United Russia, demanded a big increase in the space budget.

He also announced that a Russian MP and supermarket tycoon, Vladimir Gruzdev, 40, who in August planted a Russian flag on the North Pole seabed, would become the country's first space tourist this month.

REUTERS AM KP2230

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