A Brief History Of Sputnik

Author:  Brittany Raffa
Date:  October 2007

[image # 1]The launching of Sputnik on October 4, 1957 simultaneously spurred the Cold War into a Space Race and the twentieth century into a Space Age. In fact, the now termed "Sputnik Night" of October 4-5, 1957 became the edge of a coin, separating history into two eras: "pre-Sputnik" on one half of the coin and "post-Sputnik" on the other. The latter soon came to be known as the "Space Age." While most people know that Sputnik was the first satellite to successfully orbit the earth, thereby escalating the tensions between the United Stated and the Soviet Union, the goal of this article is to examine the preceding and following events that are often overlooked.

The efforts to create and launch an artificial satellite began with the formation of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an 18-month period designated by the Russians and the Americans to study the earth. Both nations announced they would attempt to create a satellite within this period. Yet while the American government knew the Russian scientists were working on a satellite, they did not realize their counterparts were progressing at a faster pace and with more determination. At a six day international conference that began Monday, September 30, 1957 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, the Soviet scientist Sergei Poloskov let it slip that they were "on the eve of the first artificial earth satellite" and several soviet officials hinted that the satellite could be launched within weeks. These subtle remarks were dismissed as egoistic bragging by the heads of the team building the American satellite, Vanguard. They decisively misjudged the claims; less than one week later Sputnik was launched from Kazakhstan, orbiting the earth once every 26 minutes at 18,000 miles per hour and visible with binoculars.

The process of approving the construction of Sputnik was rather lengthy. The measures needed to construct an artificial satellite were already described by the Russian school teacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, 54 years before Sputnik was launched. In 1903, Tsiolkovsky mathematically demonstrated the velocity necessary for a device to orbit the earth. It was not until 1948 that another Russian, Mikhail Tikhonravav, asked the Russian Academy of Artillery and Sciences for help to achieve such a device. The response was blunt:

"The topic is interesting. But we cannot include your report. Nobody would understand why.They would accuse us of getting involved in things we do not need to get involved in."

The proposal was dropped until several years later when Sergei Korolev, the soon-to-be head of the soviet satellite project, slyly motivated support by accentuating the potential consequences of laggardness:

".it would be good if the Presidium were to turn the serious attention of all its institutions to the necessity of doing work on time.we all want our satellite to fly earlier than the Americans."

From here on, the satellite developed at full pace. The soviet scientists began with the construction of a satellite that failed during five launch attempts. The satellite was enormous at 1,327 kilograms, but due to its continuous failures scientists feared the Americans would launch their own satellite first. So they gave up trying to perfect the satellite and fast-tracked: they built a simple satellite in a mere month, named Sputnik, weighing a contrastingly 83.6 kilograms. "We made it in one month, with only one reason, to be the first in space," explained Gyorgi Girechko, one of the engineers.

The soviet government's response to the Sputnik launch is humorous. The following day the Russian newspaper Pravda briefly highlighted the success in the right hand column part way down the front page. The article contained a description of the Sputnik in a bland and educational tone:

"As the result of a large, dedicated effort by scientific-research institutes and construction bureaus the world's first artificial satellite of the earth has been created. On 4 October, 1957 in the USSR the first successful satellite launch has been achieved."

As the world's reactions reached Nikita Khrushchev, soviet politicians and the general soviet population, the importance of the launch set in. Two days after the launch, Pravda's front page was streaked with the headline: "World's First Artificial Satellite of Earth Created in Soviet Nation."

America's response was one of chaos, disappointment and re-energized space efforts. The New York headline ran "Russians Won the Competition" and more Americans started criticizing the current president Eisenhower. The Michigan governor G. Mennen Williams wrote a poem about the golf-playing president:

Oh little Sputnik, flying high

With made-in-Moscow beep,

You tell the world it's a Commie sky

And Uncle Sam's asleep.

You say on fairway and on rough

The Kremlin knows it all

We hope our golfer knows enough

To get us on the ball.

As the poem mentions, the U.S.S.R.'s success strengthened the communist image by asserting their technological superiority. Up to that point, the U.S. had been seen by Americans and foreigners as the nation leading the technological era. It was by re-examining this notion that America dramatically increased space research. At the time of the Sputnik launch the American Rocket Society (ARS) has a membership of roughly 5,000 engineers and scientists. Seven years later ARS boasted 20,000 members. In July 29, 1958 President Eisenhower issued the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The creation somewhat eased the negative reactions of some Americans upon Eisenhower's initial response that Sputnik had not disturbed him "one iota" and his staff members' statement that Sputnik was "a neat scientific trick." The efforts paid off when the U.S. successfully launched the artificial satellite Explorer I from Cape Canaveral, FL on January 31, 1958. Explorer I had all of Sputnik's capabilities – identifying the density of high atmospheric layers and detecting meteorites by measuring radiation encircling the earth, thereby proving the existence of the Earth's magnetic field. However, Explorer I carried a package of scientific instruments with which it discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts, a phenomenon controlling electric charges in the atmosphere and solar radiation reaching Earth. A mind-boggling number of discoveries have followed the launch of Sputnik.

In the special to the New York Times published the day after the Sputnik launch, William Jorden wrote an article which concludes with section entitled "An Aid to Scientists." His hypothesis of potential technology ushered by the launch is especially thought-provoking when viewed from our present point in time:

"Their real significance would be in providing scientists with important new information. All this information would be of inestimable value for those who are working on the problem of sending missiles and eventually men into the vast reaches of the solar system."

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, Europe will launch 50 nanosatellites on October 4, 2007. Each will represent a nation and weigh one kilogram. They will orbit for approximately two years as they perform experiments specified by each country. Jean Yves Le Gall, CEO of Arianespace, the company that is launching the nanosatellites, is optimistic:

"Just like 50 years ago, when the first man made Earth satellite was launched, these nanosatellites will signal a new era for scientists worldwide."

Newsreel of the launch:


Authentic recordings of the signal:

From Washington: www.mentallandscape.com/Sputnik1_WashingtonDC.mp3

From Czechoslovakia: www.mentallandscape.com/Sputnik1_Czech.mp3

Neat facts:[/i]

The first man-made object to reach space was launched more than 10 years before Sputnik. It was the V2 rocket, the first ballistic missile that was launched by the Germans during WWII, reaching an altitude of 109 miles, 47 miles past the border of space.

On December 8, 1957 in Enino, CA, Earl Thomas was exiting his house for work when he saw a glowing object by a tree in his backyard. The pieces match structure diagrams of Sputnik.

A Sputnik replica was built by French and Russian teenagers and it stayed in orbit two months after being hand launched.

- By Brittany Raffa

Reviewed and published by Pooja Ghatalia.