Sputnik 1 and the Birth of the Space Age

Buster KeatonOn this day in 1957, Sputnik 1 was born. It was one of the greatest moments in the history of humanity. Americans tend to forget about it the same way they forget that the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis. (Americans think George C Scott did it.) But proud and patriotic Americans are not so insecure that they cannot admit that someone else did a great thing. And Sputnik 1 was a very great thing.

It was on this day 57 years ago that the space age started. And if that wasn’t cool enough, the launch of Sputnik 1 made America go crazy — but in a good way. It’s not that we didn’t have rocket scientists doing great work. But it took this national embarrassment to get the government to properly invest in space exploration.

The history of Sputnik 1 on both sides is filled with government silliness. They were both most interested in its military applications. Sputnik 1, for example, was funded by the Defense Ministry. What’s great, of course, are the scientists and the others involved in the actual work. The project was headed by Dimitrij Sergeevich Mordasov, and it was outfitted with four radio antennas that transmitted measurements of “the density of the atmosphere, its ion composition, the solar wind, magnetic fields, and cosmic rays.” These were critical to future space exploration, but it also yielded important information of general interest.

Right now, the human race (and not just the United States) has two vehicles roaming around Mars. And I’m sure that part of that is each government is still afraid that one country might learn something that might give them a military advantage. And indeed, I was very displeased when the conflict in the Ukraine was used by the United States to cut off scientific collaborations with Russia. But mostly, I think the space program is motivated by our best impulses. If species are judged by what they are at their best, humans do very well, because all you have to do is point to the international space program.

In a big way, that is thanks to Sputnik 1. It only operated for three months. It lived fast and died young. But it has had a great a positive impact on the world for the last six decades. In the flash of this moment, it is the best of what we are.

Happy birthday Sputnik 1!


I really like the following image that I created for last year’s birthday post. I wrote, “There are four artist birthdays today in as many countries and centuries. First, there is Lucas Cranach the Younger, a German Renaissance painter, who was born in 1515. Second, is Francesco Solimena, an Italian Baroque painter, who was born in 1657. Third, is Jean-Francois Millet, a French Barbizon painter, who was born in 1814. And fourth, is Frederic Remington, an American artist of the old west, who was born in 1861.”

Four Painters

7 thoughts on “Sputnik 1 and the Birth of the Space Age

  1. I’ve started re-learning all the science I unlearned as a kid. I had a great love for math, chess, physics, all the nerd things, but once the competition got heavy I cringed away; competition doesn’t work for me (and people who excel in those arenas are highly competitive.) This isn’t uncommon; I know music teachers who specialize in reclaiming students who loved music but were turned off by the highly competitive prodigy pressure.

    That silly, kid-friendly, cheesy-CGI-graphics “Cosmos” series really hit a nerve for me. (Basically, because Degrasse-Tyson is among the most charming people on the planet.) I liked just about every episode, and one moment among many I remember fondly mentioned how the space race was born from the Cold War yet achieved tons of important things; rock samples from the moon and Mars, particularly.

    Our space program seems to be in a muddle. We’re stuck, public support for funding-wise, with Beating The Furreners as our only selling point, and stuck with manned spaceflight as our best rah-rah selling point for Beating The Furreners. Although there aren’t too many good reasons for humans to risk life ‘n’ limb in space (maybe the near-orbit, slightly safer stuff.) While every single probe we send anywhere, while not too sexy in Beating Furreners fashion, provides astounding, mind-warping data. You cannot have too many of these probes.

    A month ago I had maybe my favorite little two-day trip in a long time. There’s this abandoned mine in northern Minnesota that has been reclaimed by scientists for particle research; they shoot neutrinos at it from Fermilab to determine how the neutrinos do their fucked-up change-y thing (soon it’ll be done from Fermilab to the Homestead Mine in the Black Hills, once “owned”/stolen by everyone’s favorite buddy, George Hearst.) Some good data was obtained, especially on neutrino masses. Yet the physicists who conceived the project considered themselves career failures; they didn’t back the sexiest horse. Competition; sigh.

    Niftily enough, the original mine shaft and cable system are still in use (those 100-year-old steel cables are two inches thick; they’ll never break), and that’s how they lowered bits and pieces of the lab equipment down some 2700 feet. To get the neutrino shooter from Chicago to measure its aim accurately, they couldn’t use a laser pointed down the shaft; refraction from moisture in the mine fucked up the laser. So they plumb-bobbed it, over and over, inch by inch down the shaft, and when they built the target and turned on the shooter, bingo! Dead center.

    The whole gig cost $50 million. $50 million. Total chump change.

    I also got a history lesson about labor relations in mining over the years from a third-generation miner, and met an author working on a book about US science projects! She had me take a picture of her in front of this neat mural: http://www.symmetrymagazine.org/article/may-2005/deconstruction-soudan-mural#

    Basically, I’m still geeking out over how cool that all was. I’m a liberal/labor guy first, an amateur historian second, and as a kid I loved nerd stuff. You get to pack that all in one trip? With a terrifying ride half-a-mile down a claustrophobic mine car? Creepy bats pooping on you? The most fun I’ve had in a long time.

    • That sounds very cool. Scientists left on their own, can do great things. Even when they get no money at all. But money is critical in bringing new ideas to the attention of others. People who think that the free market can do it are fools. It’s like feeding the poor: sure, there are rich people who will throw a little money toward it for this or that. But great civilizations need to make investments. We are devolving.

      I thought the new Cosmos was okay. I find deGrasse-Tyson pretty charming — actually, more so than Sagan. But I think he panders a bit and I never get the impression he cares about the politics quite as much as Sagan did. Of course, for physicists of my age, Sagan was huge. He was easily responsible for half of us going into the field. You can’t overstate his importance. That’s probably the best part of the new Cosmos: deGrasse-Tyson talking about Sagan’s effect on him.

      • That WAS the best part of the series. I teared up a bit when Tyson talked about Sagan. What great, important work Sagan did, both career-wise and as a science explicator who encouraged kids. A good person.

        • Also, sorry for the capitalization of WAS. I’ve been hooked on how the low-payroll KC Royals baseball team is doing well, and on sports threads you USE CAPS a lot.

          • Let’s see. Using underscores make italic in Google+. Do they _here_? And using asterisks make bold. Do they *here*? If not, you can use html.

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