On 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.”