October 4, 1957: Sputnik

October 4th, 2007

With Fear and Wonder in Its Wake, Sputnik Lifted Us Into the Future:

Fifty years ago, before most people living today were born, the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik was heard round the world. It was the sound of wonder and foreboding. Nothing would ever be quite the same again — in geopolitics, in science and technology, in everyday life and the capacity of the human species.

The Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite, a new moon, on Oct. 4, 1957. Climbing out of the terrestrial gravity well, rising above the atmosphere and into orbit, Sputnik crossed the threshold into a new dimension of human experience. People could now see their kind as spacefarers. Their enhanced mobility might someday prove as liberating as the first upright steps of hominid ancestors long ago.

The immediate reaction, though, reflected the dark concerns of a world in the grip of the cold war, a time of fear and division in which the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, stared each other down with the menace of mass destruction. Sputnik altered the nature and scope of the cold war.

It was an unprepossessing agent of alarm. A simple sphere weighing just 184 pounds and not quite two feet wide, it had a highly polished surface of aluminum, the better to reflect sunlight and be visible from Earth. Two radio transmitters with whiskery antennas issued steady signals on frequencies that scientists and ham operators could pick up, and so confirm the achievement.

How Sputnik changed the world

When Sputnik was lifted into space on October 4, 1957, it was humankind’s first step into the final frontier.

The small aluminium sphere emitted a shrill signal and orbited the Earth for three months.

It was trumpeted by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as a conquest that made the capitalist world look at the Soviet Union in a different way.

He was right.

Shortly after, his American counterpart, John F Kennedy, upped the ante.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth,” Mr Kennedy said.

Sputnik ignited panic in the West.

Oct. 4, 1957: Russ Puts Man-Made Moon in Orbit!

But Sputnik may not have been quite the world-beater it seemed at the time. In recent interviews leading up to the 50th anniversary of the launch, Boris Chertok, one of the founders of the Soviet space program, admitted that Sputnik was something of a lash-up, a hastily put-together gamble using a spare rocket and a satellite assembled from what was on hand.

Nevertheless, as it had been with the sudden emergence of the USSR as a nuclear power eight years earlier, the American public was caught off guard by Sputnik and frightened by the implications of a successful Soviet rocket launch. If the Soviets could put a basketball-sized artificial satellite into orbit, they could certainly put a nuclear-tipped missile into a target in the United States.

American unease was only heightened when Sputnik 1 was followed a month later by the successful launching of Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika, the first living passenger, into space.

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