The Metal Ball that kick-started the history of man’s involvement with Space
In these pandemic days, we hear the name Sputnik so often; the covid vaccine developed by Russia. Sputnik, being one of the leading vaccines to keep the Covid 19 at bay, was once the name given to the most prestigious step the human race ever marked in its history. Sputnik-I was the first-ever artificial body that reached the Earth's atmosphere, orbited around the globe, gave the first insight into the conditions of the upper atmosphere and started the space race between two Cold War adversaries, the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
It was 65 years ago, on October 4th of 1957, humans scaled the heights they never dreamt of achieving. The satellite was a basketball-sized 83.6-kilogram metal sphere, about 56 centimetres in diameter with four antennas sticking out of it, filled with pressurised Nitrogen. A low-power radio transmitter that broadcasted a beeping noise at regular intervals, three silver-zinc batteries and a ventilation fan were the only cargo on board Sputnik-I; but it created an impact that was far bigger than its size.
Sputnik revolved around the Earth for three months at a speed of 29,000 kilometres per hour and travelled over 70 million kilometres until it fell back and burned in Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958.
Sputnik was launched on a huge rocket named R7, from Baikonur Cosmodrome at Tyuratam in Kazakhstan, then part of the former Soviet Union. The launch of Sputnik led the way for new political, scientific, military and technological developments. The satellite was launched into an elliptical orbit with a maximum height of 940kms, circling Earth every 96.2 minutes. Sputnik revolved around the Earth for three months at a speed of 29,000 kilometres per hour and travelled over 70 million kilometres until it fell back and burned in Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958.
People believed that the shiny Sputnik satellite was visible to the naked eye and can be seen through binoculars. Many of them even reported spotting the satellite. But the fact was that the satellite was too small to be seen this way, and what people saw was the core stage of the R7 rocket which also reached the same orbit. The beeping signals from Sputnik could be heard by anyone through radio devices. These signals gave early information about the density of the upper atmosphere and data about the ionosphere.
The launch of Sputnik-I shocked the entire world, especially Americans, and it opened another phase of the Cold War. The pressure it gave on the American government was unimaginable.
Americans feared that the Soviets—whom they believed were behind the United States technologically after the devastation of World War II—could launch ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons at the United States.
The U.S. suffered a severe setback in December 1957 when Vanguard, its first artificial satellite, exploded on the launch pad. This made the situation worse. American people started to believe that the Soviets had gone far ahead of them and their country was failing to its cold war enemy. The efforts and statements made by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower following the launch to ease the situation were not enough to calm the people.
The United States was planning to launch a satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year but the launch of Sputnik 1 caught them off-guard as the American public felt echoes of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor less than 16 years before. Eisenhower and other leaders in his administration congratulated the Soviets and tried to downplay the situation but they heavily misjudged the public opinion to this event. Americans feared that the Soviets—whom they believed were behind the United States technologically after the devastation of World War II—could launch ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons at the United States.
Following the successful launch of Sputnik, both nations were literally in a competition to set milestones in space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was the product of this space race inaugurated by Sputnik. It was in 1958, a year after the launch of Sputnik, U.S. President Eisenhower created NASA replacing the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and poured budget into space research. On January 31, 1958, the U.S. successfully launched its first satellite Explorer-I. This competition between the nations later led to many technological advancements in space science.
The idea of an artificial satellite was first raised in 1954 by Mikhail Tikhonravov, a Soviet aerospace engineer and scientist. Sergei Korolev, the master brain who founded and led the Soviet space missions, later worked on Tikhonravov's idea and designed the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); R-7. It was the same rocket that launched the Sputnik satellite.
The first satellite developed by the Soviets for the space mission named 'Object D', actually weighed around 1400 kilograms and contained scientific equipment for research. But unfortunately, the R7 rocket did not generate enough power and was incapable of carrying a 1000kg satellite to orbit.
The U.S. was also planning to launching a satellite during the International Geophysical Year, which was planned since July 1957 through December 1958. This was initially pledged by president Eisenhower in 1955. In response, the Soviets had to run faster to make the milestone theirs. This led to the development of Sputnik, a much smaller satellite that weighed just 83 kilograms.
The successful launch of Sputnik-I was followed by two more Sputnik satellites, including one that carried Laika, a dog, into space. Even though the Soviets officially called only three satellites Sputnik, westerners used Sputnik as a generic name for Soviet satellites.
Today, six decades after the launch of the first satellite, advancements in the field of aeronautics and space research is beyond imagination. Almost every country has its own satellites and around 3000 active artificial satellites are orbiting the Earth. Humans set foot on the moon, launched an international space station and are now aiming to go to Mars, but still, Sputnik-I outshines all the achievements and milestones that came and are yet to come.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
In your opinion, what would not be possible if Sputnik 1 were not launched?
In your opinion, what was the United States’ response to the launch of Sputnik 1?
Can you think of the changes that occurred in American society as a result of the Sputnik launch?
In your opinion, what does the name Sputnik suggest to you?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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