Sputnik Turns 50

Russian Satellite Launches Space Race, GPS Systems and More

Fifty years ago, a 183-pound satellite changed aeronautical history. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union satellite, Sputnik I, became the first artificial object to be successfully launched into space. This event marked the start of the international space race between the world super powers.

“The launch of Sputnik played a key role in reenergizing U.S. science and technology education,” said John Tharakan, Ph.D., a chemical engineering professor at Howard University, “and supposedly re-awakening science and technology research in the United States.”

While Sputnik I disintegrated after 22 days in orbit, its significance continued to live on throughout the world. Its launch paved the way for technological, scientific and military developments from the United States to Russia.

Steven J. Dick, chief historian at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), said the launch of Sputnik opened up “boundless possibilities” in the world.

“Sputnik represents the beginning of the Space Age and can only be understood in the geopolitical context of the times, namely the Cold War between the United States and Russia,” Dick said. “Once Sputnik was launched, the United States perceived space as a race toward technological superiority.”

The Russian satellite launching caught America off guard and placed fear in the hearts of citizens. Historians attribute the fear to the thought of Russia’s ability to possibly launch war missiles. Dick said that the Russian success also symbolized superiority between the super powers.

“They could see an object from a foreign country in the sky over their heads,” he said, “symbolizing the technological superiority of the Soviet Union.”

Tharakan said that Sputnik also had an impact on the political realm and served as a “political rallying point for enlarging defense and military-science and technology budgets.”

“What is not often discussed is how Sputnik was used by politicians and military/aerospace lobbying groups to channel vast sums of tax dollars into military research,” Tharakan said.

Many technological advancements began with Sputnik: from the GPS systems in cars to the weather warnings. Dick, who is also director of the NASA History Division, said that the beginning of the space age represented “extraordinarily difficult achievements.”

“Building the technology that enabled Earth-circling satellites and human space-flight was truly something new under the Sun,” he said.

Many people are unaware of the importance of Sputnik.

“Today we take for granted global weather forecasts, GPS navigation and instantaneous communication — none of which were possible before the Space Age,” Dick said.

Gurlaine Jean, 21, a finance major at Howard, said that she has little interest in the things dealing with space, but that she recognized how Sputnik’s existence fueled U.S technology.

“It is important,” Jean said. “This country has always sought to keep up with technological advancements.”

Sputnik also led to the creation of NASA in 1958. NASA’s mission is to “pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

While Sputnik I was limited in its abilities, satellites are now used for a variety of uses. Even before the effects of Sputnik 1 had worn off, the Soviet Union struck success again. In November 1957, less than a month later, it launched Sputnik 2 carrying a dog, Laika.

According to a NASA article by Roger Launius, while the first satellite weighed less than 200 pounds, this spacecraft weighed 1,120 pounds and stayed in orbit for almost 200 days.

“Sputnik I was only a radio beacon, and Sputnik II and III had more scientific uses, including studying the effects of weightlessness on the dog Laika,” Dick said. “Satellites today are used for weather, navigation, communications, reconnaissance, Earth resource, and for astronomical observations such as the Hubble Space Telescope.”

On July 21, 1969, millions of people watched two Americans walk on the moon, which President John F. Kennedy described as “The New Frontier.”

“The lunar landing was celebrated as an epic technological achievement and a triumph of the human spirit,” according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Web site.

NASA and the museum’s Division of Space History are sponsoring a two-day conference, “Remembering the Space Age,” starting Oct. 22.

“[Sputnik] should remind us how the direction of science and technology advancement in this nation changed,” Tharakan said, “and how Sputnik served as the spur and driver in spreading that structural organization of our research establishments.”