Sputnik Plus 40 Years: Once the dream of far-sighted scientists and science-fiction enthusiasts, manmade satellites have created a revolution in scientific exploration and communications

October 05, 1997|By GARY DORSEY

In 1956, the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke came to Baltimore as chairman of the British Interplanetary Society to discuss, among other things, satellites. The use of satellites for radio and television. Satellites for astronomy and physics. Satellites for global communications and remote sensing of Earth.

At that time, of course, artificial satellites did not exist except on paper - and in Clarke's brilliant imagination. But he was on a six-month lecture tour, and when he arrived in Baltimore, he insisted on dropping by the Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River to look at the rocket selected to launch the world's first satellite.

The Martin Co. had many more important projects at the time - airplanes and jets and such. In fact, the Vanguard rocket was not a high priority among the engineering projects there, as Clarke discovered when he arrived and saw the company had assigned its satellite rocket builders to hot and tawdry offices above an aluminum smelting machine, beneath pigeon-filled rafters.

Describing his visit later, the author noted that the people he met seemed largely unaware of what was about to happen. Wouldn't they be surprised, he wrote, when "in a year or so, the American satellites start racing overhead west to east - and the Russian ones, north to south."

Only a handful of far-sighted scientists and science-fiction enthusiasts understood these things. The American public - and even engineers at work on the Vanguard Project itself - had no inkling that the new technology would create a revolution in scientific exploration and communications or begin a prolonged Cold War that would divide all the nations on Earth.

The recollection Ar-thur Clarke penned after his visit to Baltimore could not have been more accurate. Polls conducted as late as 1957, just before the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, confirmed that most people in the United States had never heard of satellites. Even in Baltimore, where the Martin Co. was busy building the first satellite launcher, one survey showed that only about 15 percent of people in the area even knew the project existed.

Most people could not have cared less.

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of Sputnik, the world's first satellite launch. It's easy to look back and see how common it has been to underestimate the value of these wondrous machines, how strangely customary to misjudge satellites' profoundly enduring and provocative nature.

Although they're as common as cantaloupes today, when a satellite first entered the world Oct. 4, 1957, it was a symbol as fearsome as a mushroom cloud. In today's global village, the little workhorses of the heavens conduct business that now seems as mundane as a weather report, as quaint and unremarkable as an iron bridge or black-and-white television.

It would not be customary, at a time like this, to recognize their impact, their astonishing effect on the world.

Fifty years ago, a West Coast think tank under the name Project Rand began to assess the latest ideas for building a radically new machine that would orbit Earth.

Gathered at the request of the Army, scientists and engineers produced a top-secret report in a few weeks, giving one of the most magnificent assessments ever written about a proposed technology.

Straining to control their enthusiasm, authors of the report wrote: "Though the crystal ball is cloudy, two things seem clear: 1. A satellite vehicle with appropriate instrumentation can be expected to be one of the most potent scientific tools of the Twentieth Century.

"2. The achievement of a satellite craft by the United States would inflame the imagination of mankind, and would probably produce repercussions comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb."

Why it took 10 more years before the launch of the first satellite - Sputnik - is one of the most interesting subjects in the history of 20th-century technology.

Despite the thrilling report from the Rand committee, the idea of orbiting satellites signified something far more ominous in higher echelons of American government. They were certainly not viewed as hovering platforms for mere science experiments.

Among U.S. military and government officials, the earliest conversations about creating the technology usually hinged on an assortment of policy issues. Any talk of satellites quickly turned into an examination of U.S.-Soviet relations and often ended in conflict or resistance.

American scientists knew the machine was so simple that it could be built with existing materials and launched almost immediately. But the nation's military advisers argued strongly against it. They said an artificial satellite would create serious problems. They said it would compound existing pressures in international affairs. A satellite launch would inflame the Soviets.

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