Remembering Sputnik

Oct. 4 marked the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1, the Earth's first artificial satellite.

Oct. 4 marked the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1, the Earth’s first artificial satellite. The satellite carried a small transmitter which transmitted on frequencies of 20.005 and 40.002 MHz. According to the Oct. 5, 1957 Pravada article announcing the satellite launch, “the power of the transmitters ensures reliable reception of the signals by a broad range of radio amateurs.” The Soviet’s success in launching the first satellite led the U.S. to boost science education and to undertake its own bold space efforts

Looking back, I wonder how much of a role that Soviet satellite and the resulting emphasis on science and technology in the middle of the 20th century played in creating the technology we all enjoy today. It must have been substantial. Look at transportation. While automobile styles have changed and engines have become more reliable, the basic technology hasn’t changed nearly as much as communications. Yes, that 1950’s TV or 1950’s radio still play, but now we receive music direct from satellites, track our position via satellite and watch TV via satellite where terrestrial stations can’t be received. When the TerreStar satellite is launched, first responders will be able to communicate inside and outside disaster areas from handheld radios—quite a change in 50 years!

It’s interesting to consider what might have happened if Sputnik had not been the first satellite, beaten in the race to space by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Vanguard satellite. Would the U.S. have engaged in the same massive effort to improve science education and raise a generation that would go on to develop technologies like the transistor, the integrated circuit, and the microprocessor that lead to communications breakthrough like the Internet?

When you step outside tonight, take a look up at the sky and say thanks to those Russian scientists that put Sputnik into orbit 50 years ago.

For more information, see the excellent NASA Web page Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age. It includes a WAV file with the sound of Sputnik’s telemetry and links to Soviet and U.S. documents on the early space program. If you doubt the influence Sputnik had on our country and the world, searching for “Sputnik” on and reading a few of the more than 2,500 articles it finds might change your mind. Could the U.S. have another “Sputnik moment”? James Pinkerton’s editorial, After Sputnik we aimed high, now our aims are low says that day may not be too far away. It is an interesting comparison of the state of the country and the world in 1957 and 50 years later, in 2007.