Thursday, October 04, 2007

Beep little Sputnik, beep

For many, the space race began 50 years ago today. Okay, so purists may point much further back to Goddard, Tsiolkovsky and the like, and the Germans certainly launched a V2 well beyond the limits of space back in 1944. But history was made on the flat steppe of Tyuratam on October 4 1957 with the successful launch of Sputnik 1 - the world's first artificial satellite.

While the Soviets saw the launch - masterminded by the Chief Designer, Sergei Koralev - of the R7 carrying the 83kg nitrogen-filled sphere and its successful deployment in orbit as a scientific triumph, initially it was regarded as a side-of-the-desk project in the race to outdo American efforts to design and deploy nuclear ICBMs.

Putting a satellite into orbit warranted a front page piece in Pravda celebrating the Soviet success in this International Geophysical Year - but it was downpage and that first media coverage was actually quite understated. Clearly, the Moscow regime hadn't anticipated the impact that the beep beep beep from space would cause....

Across the rest of the world, Sputnik created a furore. For 22 days, millions tuned into the craft's signature radio signal. Red terror heightened across the capitalist world. If the Soviets could launch a satellite to fly directly over the US, they could certainly land nuclear missiles on Washington, London, New York and Paris.

Of course the Americans had to get into the Space Race quickly, and much to the consternation of their premier rocket designer, Werner Van Braun, the Navy's Vanguard rocket was chosen as the vehicle to deliver America's response to the Soviet threat (though not before Koralev's team had launched a dog into space on Sputnik 2). In December, the Vanguard rocket launched from the pad in Florida amid a blaze of TV lights and with the eyes of the world firmly fixed on it. It was all so different from the total secrecy surrounding Soviet launches - which remained secret until proven successful.

America's first satellite launcher reached the giddy heights of 17 inches, before crashing back to the pad in flames. It wasn't until 1958 that the US finally joined the Space Race with Explorer 1.

'57 was a bad year for American space endeavour, but a massive leap forward for space exploration. It will always be associated with Koralev's beeping sphere.

No comments: