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October 04, 2007

Sputnik Anniversary

Today is the Sputnik Anniversary, the 50th year to the day since the small satellite was launched into orbit around the earth. Of course, it wasn't something completely new: it was building on the work of people like Tsiolkovsky and Robert Goddard, even of the Nazis and their various rockets such as the V1 and the V2. But it was the first time anything had been put into orbit by man so for that reason the Sputnik anniversary is worth remembering.

One of the best pieces I've seen on Sputnik comes from my (occasional) employer, Madsen Pirie:

When Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit half a century ago, the space age began and the earth acquired its first artificial moon. The world's reaction to it effectively started the space race as well, since the Soviet Union trumpeted the feat as proof of the superiority of communism and soviet science. What it did establish was the weight of Soviet military power, and what can be done if a nation single-mindedly devotes so huge a proportion of its national product to its military.

The small light crossing the heavens (which was not the tiny sputnik but the final stage of its launch rocket) persuaded the Americans to stop regarding space research as low key science, and to treat it instead as a high profile military and political endeavour. The Russians began this, for Korolev's programme largely consisted of doing what the US planned to do, but doing it ahead of them. New information shows how haphazard this process often was. Korolev had the advantage of the large military booster with its wrap-round cluster rockets, a design still in service today.

The Soviets could not sustain their early successes, lacking both the wealth and the scientific sophistication, especially in electronics, of the US. In retrospect it seems astonishing what within 12 years of that first sputnik launch, Americans were walking on the moon.

Exactly, at the time Sputnik was seen as the expression of th superiority of he planned Soviet system. It was subsequent events in the space race which showed its flaws: for economic development is a marathon, not a sprint.

The Russians are using the anniversary as a booster for their current space plans:

In 1957 the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, was launched by what was then the Soviet Union.

The launch is considered one of the most significant moments in history and began the space race with the US, which eventually sent men to the Moon.

After years of decline the Russians are now back in the space game with highly ambitious plans.

But I have to say that the lack of electronics still hampers them: I know, I've supplied chips from the US to the Russian space program.

Some Americans are using the same Sputnik anniversary to argue for boosts in science spending today:

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first space satellite, called Sputnik 1. It weighed only 184 pounds, but it demonstrated technology and rocket power that few thought the Russians had. By contrast, the first planned US satellite was the grapefruit-sized Vanguard, weighing three pounds.


A month later, the Russians sent a dog into orbit in a satellite weighing 1,121 pounds. The space race was on, and the United          States was losing.       


The American people were shocked by Sputnik, as were many political leaders. Republican Sen. Styles Bridges of New Hampshire warned, "The time has clearly come to be less concerned with the depth of the pile on the new broadloom rug or the height of the tail fin on the car and to be more prepared to shed blood, sweat, and tears if this country and the free world are to survive."


At first, the politicians played their usual games, with Democrats holding hearings to expose delays and mismanagement in US programs and with Republicans trying to reassure the American people that the United States was still strong. But very soon, leaders from both parties came together in a measured, deliberate, yet broad response.

To be honest, I'm really not sure about that. All of the interesting things being done in space science these days are coming from the private sector. We really don't need another International Space Station swallowing all the available cash.

Here's the Reuters report on the anniversary:

And the CBS one:
A concern that Russia might make a similar leap forward today:
And an interesting memoir from Kruschev's son:
And finally, a look at Sputnik's legacy:

October 4, 2007 in Space | Permalink


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The horrible thing is that it took only 12 years to go from the first object in space to the Moon landings but that NASA say it will take at least 13 to get bck.

You are quite right about the most interesting stuff being free enterprise, not because it is particularly outstanding but because the government stuff is mired in bureaucracy. Burt Rutan's Spaceship One was inspired by an X-Prize of $10 million which keeps NASA running for 5 hours & the combined European space effort for 10. Imagine what could be done if, instead of wasting it on bureaucrats they were to put these budgets into X-Prizes.

Posted by: Neil Craig | Oct 9, 2007 3:29:35 PM