This Saturday marks the 40 anniversary of one of the most pivotal events in 20th century science:  the launch by the late Soviet Union of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite.

Nowadays, of course, we take satellites for granted:  we see photographs taken by satellites every evening on the news, we watch television signals transmitted via satellite from halfway around the world, we send our own voices into orbit and back down again when we make long-distance phone calls.  Nowadays about the only time we hear about the launch of a satellite is when something goes wrong with it, but when Sputnik was launched, it was THE news story of the day.

It wasn’t that the concept of an artificial satellite was new:  the idea goes back to Isaac Newton, who realized it should theoretically be possible.  As is often the case, however, theory raced ahead of practice, and it wasn’t until the development of liquid-fueled rockets in the 20th century that a propulsion system existed powerful enough to lift a payload high enough, and accelerate it fast enough, for it to achieve orbit.  (Orbit is achieved when an object is moving so fast horizontally that the Earth’s surface, being spherical, curves away from it as fast as gravity pulls it down.  The necessary speed is less the further you are away from the Earth, but at 275 kilometres, for example, it’s 27,860 kilometres per hour.)

Scientists in three countries made the most important contributions to the development of rocket propulsion, and it was their three countries–Russia, Germany and the U.S.–that played the most important roles in getting artificial satellites into space.  Konstantin Ziolkovsky, a Russian schoolteacher, published “A Rocket Into Cosmic Space” in 1903, in which he proposed the use of liquid propellants for spaceships.  He inspired American physics professor Robert Goddard to begin experimenting with liquid-fueled rockets:  he launched the first successful on on March 16, 1926.  (He was widely considered a crackpot for doing so.)  And German mathemetician Hermann Oberth published “The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space” in 1923.

War spurred the development of rockets, especially in Germany, where the V-2 missile was developed as a weapon of terror.  At the conclusion of the war, German rocket engineers were snatched up by both the U.S. and the USSR, as were left-over V-2s.  As the Cold War descended in place of the hot one, the U.S. and USSR began developing missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons across oceans–and in the process, what had once seemed a distant dream, placing an artificial satellite in space, became a distinct possibility:  so much so that in 1955, the U.S. announced its goal of placing a satellite in orbit for the International Geophysical Year, a period of intense scientific research scheduled for 1957 and 1958.  Shortly thereafter, the USSR said it would launch one, too–but so convinced was the U.S. of its technological superiority that that and subsequent announcements from Moscow were dismissed as propaganda.

All that changed on October 4 (the morning of October 5 in Russia), when an 84-kilogram aluminum sphere soared aloft on a modified SS-6 ballistic missile, a two-stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene.  The sphere settled into an orbit that circled the Earth every 98.6 minutes and ranged from 228 to 947 kilometres above the surface.  The Russians called their new satellite Sputnik, which means “travelling companion.”  (The full Russian term for a satellite is “sputnik zemli,” travelling companion of the world.)

Sputnik 1 was really nothing more than a test payload; the only instrumentation it carried was a radio beacon and a thermometer.  It’s designers called it the “ES” (Elementary Satellite).  But the “beep-beep-beep” it emitted as it circled the Earth could be picked up even by ordinary ham radio operators, and left no doubt that we had entered a new scientific age.

A small, beeping aluminum sphere doesn’t seem like much of a threat, but the fact that the USSR had a rocket powerful enough to put it into orbit did seem like a threat, since it demonstrated a Soviet lead in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and showed the USSR had the ability to drop nuclear bombs on North America.  The U.S. public reacted with alarm bordering on panic.  Edward Teller, the physicist best known as the driving force behind the development of the hydrogen bomb, said the U.S. had lost “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor.”  U.S. News & World Report said the launching was as important militarily as the development of nuclear fission.  Senator Henry Jackson called it “a devastating blow to the prestige of the United States as the leader in the scientific and technical world.”

As a result, Sputnik’s launch had more impact in North America than it did anywhere else.  Sputnik 1 remained in orbit for 57 days before its orbit decayed and it burned up in the atmosphere.  The U.S. accelerated its own satellite program, attempting a launch using the not-completely-tested Vanguard rocket in December.  It crashed on the pad.  The Russians, by contrast, had successfully launched a second Sputnik on November 3–and Sputnik 2, much larger (at 508.3 kilograms) and much more sophisticated, even carried a live dog, named Laika, who survived for 10 days in oribt before being put to sleep (technology not yet providing a way to bring her home safely).

But from there, the pace of change as a result of Sputnik accelerated and took on a life of its own.  The U.S. finally got its first satellite, Explorer 1, into space on January 31, 1958, while Sputnik 2 was still in orbit (though long after Laika’s demise).  On March 5, 1958, President Eisenhower approved a recommendation to create a civilian space agency from the existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics; the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was officially born on October 1, 1958, just under a year after Sputnik’s launch.  Shortly thereafter the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was transferred from the U.S. Army to NASA.  Less than 12 years after Sputnik’s launch, NASA would land men on the moon; less than 20, JPL’s Viking spacecraft made the first soft landing on Mars.

But Sputnik’s legacy went far beyond space exploration.  Here on the ground, it sparked a renewed emphasis on science education.  In 1958 the U.S. Congress, determined to keep the U.S. in the technological vanguard, passed the $1-billion National Defense Education Act, which paid for student loans, scholarships and scientific equipment for public and private schools, and emphasized the study of math, science and foreign languages. (Until then, education had largely been left to state and local governments.)  That, in turn, provided an impetus for the development of new ways of teaching.  Some (a new emphasis on making science education a hands-on experience in the laboratory, for example) were more successful than others.  (New Math, anybody?)

Over time, the impetus given to science education by the Sputnik scare has faded, and it seems like we’re constantly casting around for new ways to stir public interest in science.  (Some people even resort to weekly newspaper columns, if you can imagine!)

But Sputnik’s legacy lives on.  On any clear night, just look up, and there’s a good chance you’ll see one of the descendents of that simple aluminum sphere making its swift, lonely away across the star-filled sky.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1997/09/sputnik/

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