Somewhat lost in all the news and commentary is the fact that this week marked a notable anniversary of one of the most important events in human history. It was 60 years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, that the then-Soviet Union launched a small metallic ball into space. The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.
While the U.S., and the entire western world, had been working on plans to launch an artificial satellite as a part of the International Geophysical Year going on at the time, these plans were essentially public knowledge. The Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik 1, followed a month later by the successful launch of a second satellite, Sputnik 2 – which carried a dog, named Laika – seemed to demonstrate that its capabilities were far ahead of those of the U.S.
The televised launchpad failure of the American Vanguard TV3 satellite on Dec. 6 only heightened these perceptions. Coming as these events did during the midst of the Cold War, the U.S. was gripped by what could almost be considered a panic, which correspondingly spurred a strong push in science and engineering education as part of the American effort to catch up and pass the Soviet Union.
The first successful American satellite was Explorer 1, which was launched on Jan. 31, 1958. In addition to showing that the U.S. could indeed achieve a successful space launch, one of Explorer 1’s scientific instruments discovered regions of high-energy radiation in the form of energetic charged particles encircling the Earth, since named the Van Allen belts after University of Iowa physicist James Van Allen, who designed the instrument in question.
The Space Race was on. The early rounds all went to the Soviet Union, who orbited the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961. The U.S. followed suit with Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight aboard the Mercury Freedom 7 capsule a little over three weeks later. Three weeks after Shepard’s flight, then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy committed the U.S. to the goal of landing astronauts on the moon – and returning them to Earth – by the end of the decade. Although there were some setbacks along the way, this goal was achieved by the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.
Following Apollo 11, six more manned missions traveled to the moon, with five of these landing successfully and then returning. However, there have been no manned missions to the moon – indeed, none beyond low Earth orbit, since Apollo 17’s return in late 1972. The Soviet Union concentrated primarily on orbiting space stations, including a series of Salyut stations during the1970s and early 1980s, followed by the Mir space station that was launched in 1986. The U.S., following its own Skylab space station in the mid-1970s, concentrated on the development of a fleet of semi-reusable Space Shuttles, which saw its first flight in 1981 and flew more-or-less continuously until its retirement in 2011.
The U.S., Russia, following the fall of the Soviet Union, and various other nations have since collaborated on the building and deployment of an International Space Station, which has been continuously occupied since November 2000, i.e., almost 17 years now. Meanwhile, China has become the third nation to launch people into space, beginning with the Shenzhou 5 mission in 2003, and which has recently included small Tiangong space stations.
The manned missions have been a small part of the overall human effort in space since Sputnik. Many unmanned space missions have been launched – by a variety of nations – for many specific reasons. Many of these, not surprisingly, have been for scientific purposes, including the study of the Earth’s surface, its atmosphere, and its geomagnetic interaction with radiation from space. Other missions have looked outward, studying, for example, the sun; there have been several orbiting telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope that was launched in 1990 and which has almost completely revolutionized our view of the surrounding universe.
Then there are the probes that have been sent out away from Earth out into the solar system. As of now every major planet in the solar system has been visited at least once, along with several asteroids and comets; probes have even soft-landed on Venus, Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, and on two asteroids and one comet. Four probes are on their way out of the solar system – by some definitions Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is already in interstellar space – and the New Horizons mission, which passed by Pluto two years ago, and is now en route to one of the Kuiper Belt objects, will also eventually leave the solar system.
And meanwhile, entire armadas of satellites have been launched into orbit for almost every conceivable purpose. These include weather satellites, which track cloud motions and water content, and thus help enormously in predicting our weather; navigation satellites, which provide GPS information utilized by many of our newer cars; and remote sensing satellites, which track everything from soil usage to weapons deployments, and which also provide detailed views of Earth’s surface that almost anyone can utilize.
Then there are the communications satellites – many of which are commercially owned and operated – that provide transmission of much of our television and radio signals, and even telephone and internet communications. One of the primary reasons we knew about this week’s various happenings as quickly as we did was because of the near-instantaneous communications made possible by these orbiting satellites.
One can only imagine what the next 60 years might bring . . .
Alan Hale is a professional astronomer who resides in Cloudcroft. Hale is involved in various space-related research and educational activities throughout New Mexico and elsewhere. His web site is http://www.earthriseinstitute.org.
Read or Share this story: http://www.alamogordonews.com/story/news/local/community/2017/10/07/our-skies-sputnik-1-launches-into-history-books/743417001/