The race to space

A tiny Russian satellite sent into orbit in 1957 launched a technological revolution and a battle for supremacy

Sputnik: 50 years later

October 04, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN REPORTER

Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union sent thrills and shivers around the world with a brief announcement: Its rocketeers had launched a tiny, beeping artificial satellite named Sputnik into orbit.

With it, they launched a revolution.

"I still have a mental picture of the newspaper inside the vending machine on Euclid Avenue. The news was absolutely electrifying," said Robert Williams, then a schoolboy in Ontario, Calif.

Williams, now 67 and an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, could barely make out the words through the plastic cover of the newspaper box. But they were exciting. "When I got home," he recalled, "I telephoned all my friends and we talked and speculated about what it meant."

FOR THE RECORD - An Associated Press graphic that accompanied yesterday's article on the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik incorrectly reported the date of the first U.S. moon landing. The landing occurred July 20, 1969.
The Sun regrets the errors.

So did the rest of the world. "U.S. Scientists Quickly Hail Soviets," read one headline in The Sun. "Flights to Moon Near, Soviet Says."

For others, the news was chilling: "Russ Rockets Make Bombers Obsolete, Krushchev Says," an Evening Sun headline reported.

Even Russian scientists were caught off guard. "We had no idea about the coming launch, and our reaction was surprise, mixed with a feeling of pride," said Roald Sagdeev, a University of Maryland physicist who was working at a Soviet atomic energy institute in 1957.

All of this might be puzzling to the 210 million Americans born after Sputnik ushered in the Space Age. Today, we barely notice the sophisticated satellite technology that puts every backyard on Google Earth, that supports our demand for television, radio, telephone, Internet, e-mail, weather forecasts, GPS navigators - even global ATM access.

A half-century after Sputnik (Russian for "fellow traveler"), the Earth moves in a cloud of more than 860 working satellites - commercial, military and scientific, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Not to mention a swarm of space junk that keeps them company.

Many satellites, including the International Space Station, are in low-Earth orbit, a couple of hundred miles up. There, uninhibited by the veil of Earth's atmosphere, orbiting telescopes are pushing the limits of the observable universe.

Beyond them, hundreds of communications satellites rub elbows in a narrow ring, 22,700 miles above the equator, orbiting once a day as the world turns, so that they "hover" over the same spot. Still farther out, a scattered fleet of robotic probes is exploring the solar system on our behalf, and even poking into interstellar space.

But all this was science fiction 50 years ago. Space was still empty of human invention and boot prints.

"For all my life, and for the lives of all astronomers of the past, the celestial apparitions that moved across the background of stars ... were the planets, comets and meteors," said Steve Maran, an astronomer, writer and press officer for the American Astronomical Society.

Suddenly, on Oct. 4, 1957, that changed. "There were these bright objects, Sputnik and the even brighter rocket stage, moving rapidly across the sky, brightening and dimming as they ... tumbled through space," Maran recalled. "An incredible thrill."

The Russians' surprise launch of the silvery, 23-inch sphere, with its insect-like whip antennas, is an indelible "flashbulb memory" for those old enough to recall it.

Ray Villard, now a science writer and information manager for the Space Telescope Science Institute, was only 7 years old at the time. But he was already thinking big.

"All the talk in the 1950s was about going to the moon. So I ... assumed we'd be exploring space. I was only disappointed that the Russian rocket could only launch a small satellite and not a whole manned spaceship," he recalled.

Americans weren't alone in their astonishment. Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescope institute, was a 12-year-old growing up in Israel. His news of Sputnik's launch arrived via radio and newspapers. There was no TV. "There wasn't even a word in Hebrew for satellite," he said.

But he recalled this: "The two facts that impressed me the most were the speed at which Sputnik was moving, about ... 18,000 miles per hour, and its weight, about ... 184 pounds, which was considered extremely high."

Sputnik, which orbited for three months, was launched as part of the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, a period of coordinated planetary studies. IGY plans included an Earth satellite, but no one expected the Russians to do it - and certainly not that soon.

"I think it was a remarkable achievement," said Lloyd Berkner, an American IGY official who was particularly impressed by the weight of the payload. "If they can launch that, they can launch much heavier ones," he said.

For many, that was cause for worry. The United States and the Soviet Union were developing long-range ballistic missiles. Sputnik convinced many American that the Russians had opened a "missile gap." That fear helped propel John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960.

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