Sixty Years after Sputnik

On 4 October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik 1 (“Satellite 1”) into orbit. Its full name was Prosteyshiy Sputnik 1, “Elementary Satellite 1”.

It was 58 cm / 23 in across, about the size of a beach ball, and it weighed 83.6 kg / 184 lb. It had four antennas sticking out of it, and a battery-powered radio transmitter with power 1 watt.

It went into orbit atop a modified R-7 ICBM, going into low Earth orbit: 215 km / 134 mi by 939 km / 583 mi with a period of 96.2 minutes.

It transmitted for 21 days, until 26 October 1957, and it stayed in orbit until it burned up in the atmosphere on 4 January 1958.

Its broadcasts, an endlessly repeated beep, were picked up all over the world by amateur radio operators, though the satellite itself was only borderline visible without a telescope.

It wasn’t much, but it was startling. Large numbers of people watched this first artificial satellite and also listened to it. Many Americans came to believe that their nation was getting behind in the Cold War, since the Russians could now send their nuclear bombs to anywhere in the world in less than an hour.

It also did not help that the Russians successfully launched a second satellite a month later, on 3 November 1957. It carried a passenger, the dog Laika, though that dog soon died. It certainly did not help that the US’s attempt to launch a satellite into orbit on 6 December 1957 was a spectacular failure. But the US succeeded in doing so on 31 January 1958.

However, President Eisenhower and his aides stayed cool. They were following the Russians’ rocketry developments with pictures taken from U-2 spyplanes that flew high above the Soviet Union. So they were not very surprised when the Soviet Union got a satellite into orbit.

I’ve even seen the theory that Eisenhower had a reason for liking the Russians going first. He wanted to establish a principle of international law, that outer space is like international waters rather than sovereign territory, like airspace. He was concerned that if the US went first, the Russians would consider a US satellite flying over their territory to be a violation of their sovereignty, just like a US spyplane doing so. So when Sputnik 1 traveled over US territory, he decided to accept it.

The US increased funding for scientific research, adding to the National Science Foundation’s funding and starting the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now DARPA with Defense in front), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The US also made efforts to improve education, with its National Defense Education Act.

The “New Math” also came out of that period, but it was an abysmal flop. It introduced a lot of abstraction far too early, IMO. Though mathematicians love abstraction, non-mathematicians often find it difficult, and math curricula should be designed with that in mind.

The US has faced challenges that some people have compared to Sputnik, like Japan in the 1980’s, but those challenges did not present the visceral level of threat that Sputnik did. Sputnik was a demonstration that the Soviet Union could send nuclear bombs to anywhere in the US in half an hour. Japan did not pose nearly that level of threat. It was at most “We will dig your graves” rather than “we will destroy you”, those two interpretations of Nikita Khrushchev’s “We will bury you”.

 

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