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Monday, October 03, 2005

Sputnik Launched, October 4, 1957

Today in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth. The 84kg, highly polished aluminum sphere set off a shock wave of surprise and concern in the United States, where experts had assumed the Soviets were far behind the West in terms of rocket technology. The launch was not only a scientific achievement for the Soviets, but an important political victory as well. What would become known as the ‘space race’ started today day 48 years ago. The race would culminate with the landing of men on the moon in 1969.

Sputnik 1 was actually little more than a nitrogen-filled radio transmitter. Its purpose was to send radio signals to tracking stations on the ground, where they would be analyzed in order to gain information about the electron density of the ionosphere. While amateur radio operators on the ground heard a series of beeps coming from the craft, the duration of the beeps actually indicated the temperature and internal pressure of the craft. This information would warn Soviet scientists in the event the satellite was punctured by a meteorite.

As evidence by the use of the numeral ‘1’, the first Sputnik satellite was just one in a series of early Soviet orbital launches. Sputnik 2 carried a dog into orbit. Sputnik 3 saw the first failure in the Soviet program, but on its second attempt, the orbiting laboratory was a success. Sputnik 4 was actually a test of the type of capsule that would eventually carry Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Sputnik 5 was also a test of the Vostok capsule, but this time it carried two dogs, 40 mice, 2 rates and a collection of plants. All were recovered one day after launch.

While some have argued that the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was a waste of time and resources, the two nations’ space programs greatly expanded mankind’s knowledge of the universe beyond our home planet. It also stirred the imagination of a generation of children and young adults who would go on to careers in science, medicine and engineering. Their contributions are too numerous to count, but much of what they did and continue to do for our world can be credit to a fast-moving dot of light in the early fall sky of 1957.

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