Happy Birthday, Sputnik

Oct 4, 2010 6:18pm

Fifty-three years ago today Americans heard the beep-beep of a Soviet satellite, the first ever launched from the earth, and the world changed.  Sputnik 1 was pretty simple, a metal sphere 23 inches in diameter, 184 pounds of mass, with two pairs of antennae and a shortwave transmitter.  It was launched into an elliptical orbit, 900 by 140 miles high, circling the earth every 101 minutes.  The Space Age was born.

Have you noticed how nobody talks about it anymore?  Even on our own home page, where we have a "This Day in History" box in the right-hand column, we featured Pope Paul VI from 1965 and the 2001 anthrax murders today.  (Part of that, we'll admit, is steered by the lack of video from 1957; if you skip through this wonderfully bad Russian film from back then, you'll note that pictures of a rocket or satellite are conspicuous by their absence.  Hat tip to Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic for flagging it.)

America answered Sputnik with its Vanguard satellite, and, when that didn't work, the hastily-assembled Explorer 1.  By 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and the world moved on.

Today if you type "Vanguard" into Google, the first hit will be the mutual fund company.  Look up "Space Age" and you'll get NASA history pages from the 50th anniversary, three years ago.  There is an annual World Space Week; let us know if there are any events near you.

John Pike, a frequent space commentator who moved on himself, more than a decade ago, to GlobalSecurity.org, once suggested to me that "the low-hanging fruit has been picked" — the first satellite, first human being in space, first on the moon, first astronaut to post directly on Twitter without going through NASA public affairs….  The space shuttles, which were supposed to make spaceflight affordable and routine, are scheduled to stop flying next year; Congress and the White House have bigger issues to argue before they settle on where to go next in space.

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