Magazine article Geographical

In the Shadow of Sputnik

Magazine article Geographical

In the Shadow of Sputnik

Article excerpt

Forty years ago a Soviet earth orbiter sent Americans reaching for the stars. Bruce Dorminey explains the enormous influence of the first artificial satellite on space exploration

It was an era of gyroscopes, Geiger counters and grandiose ideas about space travel, a time when big science and the onward march of technology was thought to be the salve for an increasingly decolonised and polarised world.

Yet on 4 October 1957 most Americans had second thoughts as the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, Earth's first artificial satellite. It was 96 days and about 1,400 global revolutions later before this 84-kilogram polished aluminium display of Soviet technology decayed into the atmosphere.

"Sputnik kicked off a media riot in the US," says Walter McDougall, historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the Pulitzer prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. "The opening of the space age was such a sexy topic and the idea that the Russians were up there first sounded so scary that the media virtually instructed Americans to panic."

But the first of three Sputniks launched on a series of R-7 ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) at Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Ukraine comprised only a test payload carrying a primitive radio beacon and a thermometer.

There were still demands that President Eisenhower call a special session of Congress to address the crisis. Instead, he held a press conference five days later at which he remarked: "As far as the satellite itself is concerned that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota."

Others argued that even if the Soviets did not start a nuclear holocaust with their new technology they might still conquer space, and perhaps militarise the moon. "What will Americans find on the other side of the moon?" the joke went. "Russians" went the answer.

"It was like a bolt of lightning and everyone was absolutely astonished," recalls Eilene Galloway, a Washington DC-based specialist in international space law and contributor to the American Congress' Space Act of 1958, which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Lyndon Johnson, then the majority leader of the Senate, asked Galloway to organise congressional hearings. So followed 2,700 pages of presentations by scientists, engineers, and the US military outlining Sputnik's impact on American defence and space policy.

"The reaction in the US was 'Here we have a Russian satellite looking down our necks every 90 minutes and for all we know it's taking photographs and doing reconnaissance and we are being made naked in the face of this threat," remembers James Van Allen, a retired astrophysicist at the University of Iowa and principal scientific investigator for Explorer 1 (America's first satellite).

Van Allen was crossing the Equator on a US Navy icebreaker en route to the Antarctic at the time and began tracking Sputnik's signals within minutes of hearing of its launch. By recording and measuring the signals, Van Allen was one of the first Western scientists to independently establish that Sputnik's signals and velocity were valid.

If, as Van Allen says, lie was pleased at Sputnik's scientific achievement, then Nikita Khrushchev must have been ecstatic. Sergei Khrushchev, the Soviet premier's eldest son, was returning to Moscow with his father after a Black Sea holiday and had stopped in Kiev to see a new amphibious tank when the two men learned of Sputnik's successful launch.

"My father's goal was to threaten Americans with death in the cheapest way," says the younger Khrushchev, now a senior fellow in international relations at Brown University, Rhode Island. "For him the R-7 ICBM was most important. We were defenceless against the Americans and their huge fleet of heavy bombers. But it was never our goal to destroy the US, and we didn't have the capability to make a first strike until the 1970s. …

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