When I was seven, my father took me out in an Alabama cotton field and told me to watch the sky over my grandfather’s house. After a minute or two he exclaimed, “There it is!”

Together we watched in awe as a small point of light moved steadily across the familiar starscape above us. It was Sputnik 1—actually the brighter main stage of the Soviet R-7 rocket that launched it. I do not remember if we knew its name then, but we knew that it was a manmade object, and it was up in the sky.

The fascination I felt that night almost 60 years ago still propels me, and I have been fortunate to have been able to follow that little moving star throughout my career. Reporters go “in search of history,” as Theodore White said, and Sputnik was my first glimpse.

A few months later, my father helped his colleagues at Redstone Arsenal match the Russian feat with Explorer I, occasioning a spontaneous celebration around the county courthouse in downtown Huntsville. The space race was on, and we lived it in our little cotton town.

When they rolled the television sets into our classrooms to watch the latest Mercury launch, it was a game to see whose daddy came out of the blockhouse at Cape Canaveral to tell Walter Cronkite what was going on overhead. A little more than 11 years after Sputnik, we saw excited Huntsville officials carry Wernher von Braun around that same courthouse square on their shoulders to celebrate the Apollo 11 splashdown—more history.

Please forgive the self-indulgence, but this is my last column for Aviation Week & Space Technology. I’m retiring at the end of the month, after 44 years as what once was called a print journalist—most of it specializing in space exploration. “Print journalist” seems anachronistic today, when you probably are reading these words on an electronic screen. Spaceflight, my favorite topic, has changed a lot since Sputnik, too. Here are some lessons I’ve learned about it.

First, space is hard—and expensive. I’ve covered two space shuttle disasters, and a lot of other near-disasters and miraculous recoveries, plus the endless budget squabbles behind it all. The failed high-gain antenna deployment on the Galileo Jupiter probe comes to mind, as does the built-in flaw that marred the Hubble Space Telescope. The former was a result of the extra moving around that Galileo underwent after the Challenger explosion; the latter was a direct result of the military secrecy at the factory that crafted mirrors for spy satellites.

Human ingenuity overcame both problems—a second lesson. It added immeasurably to our knowledge of Jupiter, the Solar System and the Universe. Engineers devised a workaround to retrieve Galileo’s data, and they literally gave the Hubble a set of eyeglasses to correct its damaged vision.

My favorite spaceflight story has been the merger of the U.S. and Soviet human-exploration efforts into what became the International Space Station (ISS). I covered the Cold War Pentagon. The awe I first felt watching Sputnik was matched when I met a guy from Rockwell International in a Moscow high bay not long after the Berlin Wall went down, figuring out how to get the Buran airlock into the shuttle orbiter’s payload bay. I witnessed the launch of Expedition 1 to the ISS from the same site in Kazakhstan where Sputnik—and Yuri Gagarin—took off, and I spent many happy hours in the press room at Johnson Space Center in the company of my beloved space-press colleagues watching brave astronauts and cosmonauts assemble the station 200 mi. above Earth.

Jan Woerner, head of the European Space Agency, is promoting a “Moon village,” where space explorers from all nations, human and robotic, can pool resources to establish an outpost on Earth’s natural satellite. I believe the village already is there, and has been since Tom Stafford and Alexey Leonov’s historic “handshake in space” during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project linkup in 1975.

The ISS is just the latest manifestation of that cooperative spirit, where terrestrial enmities pale in the face of the hazards and beauty of the heavens. As I hang up my pencil—yes, I still use one—the endeavor that started with that little speck of light in the sky in October of 1957 is booming. At least a half-dozen human-capable spacecraft are in development; worldwide, nations are vying for commercial footholds in space; and the smart kids are racing to find that killer app that will enable the next leg of the journey into the limitless wonder of the Universe.

Forgive me, engineers, but I was a Lit major. When I look at one of the first images from Hubble—a light-years-tall star-birth region in the Eagle Nebula called the Pillars of Creation (see photo)—it conjures up some words Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis penned in 1927. They remind me of the endless promise of space:

“We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence.”