It was 55 years ago today, October 4, 1957, that the last frontier for humanity was breached. Sputnik 1, the first man-made object in space, was launched in a surprise move by the Soviet Union, much to the shock of America, held at that time to be more advanced in the space race.
Five days earlier, the Soviet Union experienced a radiation contamination accident (from a nuclear fuel plant) known as Kyshtym disaster. The Russians had to evacuate thousands of people, but they kept the reason for that action a secret for 20 years.
Sputnik on the other hand was truly a remarkable achievement. Although the USA launched its own satellite, Explorer 1, less than 4 months later, the cherished first spot was lost forever.
The world was a lot different then. There were no personal computers, nor any cell phones. President Eisenhower had just started the construction of the interstate highway system. Color television was in its infancy. Elvis Presley was rocking the charts with “Jailhouse Rock”.
When the news reached US that the Russians successfully launched an artificial satellite, the surprise led to many initiatives that took back the technological edge. The creation of NASA and the National Defense Education Act encouraged scientific development.
The cold war became colder. The rivalry between the superpowers expanded into space. United States took back the lead with the Apollo 11 mission, when the first human descended onto the moon.
Sputnik 1 was a very simple device. It consisted of a 184 lb. sphere with 2 antennas, a radio emitter with a power source and little else. But it was enough. It remained a symbol of human ingenuity.
Progress and discovery come in leaps. After Columbus crossed the Atlantic, a Magellan came to cross the Pacific. Same thing happened with Sputnik. Space soon became crowded with man-made objects. The satellites changed our lives. GPS, TV, weather forecasts, high resolution imagery at our fingertips, all started with that polished sphere launched from Kazakhstan.
Will we ever stop?
We’ll never stop. Today, our Voyager probes are breaching the limits of our solar system. And this is just the beginning.
Where would we be without Ground Control? What say you Major Tom?
*The word ‘Sputnik’ originally meant ‘fellow traveler,’ but has become synonymous with ‘satellite’ in modern Russian.
The pressurized sphere, about the size of a beach ball,made of aluminum alloy, had five primary scientific objectives: Test the method of placing an artificial satellite into Earth orbit; provide information on the density of the atmosphere by calculating its lifetime in orbit; test radio and optical methods of orbital tracking; determine the effects of radio wave propagation though the atmosphere; and, check principles of pressurization used on the satellites. (the information below the video was found on NASA’s official site and can be searched on topics of interest to individual readers)