Sputnik and the Space Age at 60

Posted on Tue, October 3, 2017

There is a fanciful tradition on board Soyuz spacecraft launches. As a backup to computer tracking and monitoring, the cosmonauts and astronauts on board the Soyuz ready for launch by hanging a toy from the ceiling of their spacecraft. After the Soyuz booster separates from the spacecraft, about nine minutes after launch, the spacecraft achieves orbit around the Earth. The suspended toy is the crew’s indicator that they are in orbit. They playfully bat the toy to see if it remains hanging or if it floats in space. On the most recent mission to the International Space Station, the Soyuz MS-06 crew had a special toy-- a miniature module of Sputnik, the world’s first human-made satellite of the Earth. They chose this model to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957.

From a video of the ISS Expedition 53-54 launch, September 12, 2017.

The crew of ISS Expedition 53-54 during launch on September 12, 2017, with the Sputnik toy hanging over their heads.

Sputnik, the Russian word for satellite, was a simple object designed to demonstrate that the USSR had become the first to master Nazi German rocket technology and was prepared to lead the world into the Space Age. Consisting of a 58.3 centimeter polished sphere about the size of a beach ball, and two pairs of swept-back antennae 2.4 and 2.9 meters long, the image of the satellite has become an unforgettable one. There are models of Sputnik on display throughout the world, including here at the National Air and Space Museum and at United Nations’ Manhattan headquarters. Throughout the former Soviet Union, one can find images of Sputnik in public art, and there are even buildings designed to evoke its image. In the West, the enduring memory of Sputnik is auditory. The “Beep, beep, beep” signal that its transmitters broadcast were a message to the world that the USSR was first in space. 

Sputnik Model in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall

Sputnik, launched by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on October 4, 1957, marked a simple, yet profound event in history: the placement of the first human-made satellite into Earth orbit.

In retrospect, the visual and auditory impact of Sputnik seems almost deliberate. Its aluminum, titanium, and magnesium shell was polished to a fine, mirror finish to minimize atmospheric drag and to best reflect light from the Sun. The swept-back antennae were arranged that way in order to fit under the launch faring, but created the image of a fast moving object. The beeping signals were broadcast at frequencies that amateur radio operators could hear around the globe. Two of the three batteries, accounting for over half of the 83.6 kilo total weight of the satellite, were dedicated to sending that signal to the world. Amateur astronomers could see the upper stage of the launch vehicle orbit the Earth with the naked eye, and those equipped with telescopes could make out the flash of the satellite as it flew across the sky.

Sputnik itself was neither the satellite that the USSR had intended to launch, nor was it built to survive for very long. Originally, the USSR had planned to launch a sophisticated scientific satellite as part of the country’s contribution to international scientific cooperation for the International Geophysical Year (IGY), observed from July 1, 1957, to December, 31, 1958. Both Cold War adversaries had pledged to launch satellites into space during the IGY. However, the plans for the sophisticated Soviet satellite fell by the wayside, while the Americans persisted in their determination to launch an exclusively civilian satellite system. Sputnik’s sealed sphere could only proclaim its presence in orbit and only had the capability to change its signal if somehow the seal inside the craft were breached. It was not a scientific satellite. It carried only three batteries, two transmitters, a fan, and a barometric switch. Engineers estimated that it would last two weeks. The signals continued for 22 days and after the batteries died, Sputnik fell back into the Earth’s atmosphere and was destroyed on January 4, 1958.

While Sputnik continued to orbit silently in space, the United States’s first attempt to launch its civilian mission for IGY failed with the Vanguard launch vehicle and the crash of the Vanguard TV-2 satellite in December 1957. The Americans had to fall back onto the Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency’s Juno 1 rocket and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Explorer satellite on February 1, 1958. The more sophisticated American satellite discovered the Earth’s magnetic field, the Van Allen Radiation belt.  But, it was Sputnik that remained in the world’s memories.

While those involved in the development of rocket and satellite technology were not surprised by the October 4 launch, the rest of the world was shocked. The launch of Sputnik was a clear demonstration to the world that the USSR had the capability to send nuclear warheads to the United States. Suddenly, the post-World War II danger of a Cold War becoming a hot one were real for millions of people. 

Explorer 1 Satellite

On January 31, 1958, the successful launch of Explorer 1 was critical.

But it is not the dangers that Sputnik signaled that have made its legacy so enduring. It is the signal that Sputnik sent towards the future that has lasted. Prior to its launch, the idea of sending humans into space was the subject of fantasy. After Sputnik, the Apollo program, the International Space Station, and the vast arrays of orbiting infrastructures on which we all rely for communications, navigation, and Earth observation, became a reality. Think about that. In 60 years, we have gone from a simple satellite sending out a single beep per second, to near instant communications around the globe, the ability to navigate in foreign cities with a press of a button, and accurate weather forecasts that predict great and devastating storms. October 4, 1957 marks the beginning of the Space Age, the modern world in which we live today.