Thursday, October 04, 2007

October 4, 1957 - A Defining Moment (Updated)

Beep …beep … beep …

The Soviet Union knew that the United States was trying to put a mechanism into Earth orbit that year, and the United States knew that the Soviet Union knew it. The Premier of the USSR, Nikita S. Khrushchev, ordered his chief rocket designers and other engineers and scientists to do something that would get the Soviets into space first.

It didn’t have to be very elaborate; not like the half-ton science lab already on the drawing boards. Just something simple to start with. The launch vehicle, the R-7 IRBM, was already built and had passed its firing tests.

Beep … beep … beep …

The finished product was the size of a beach ball, weighing 184 pounds. The Soviet Union’s chief rocket designer, Sergei Korolev, oversaw its installation in the missile and final preparations began.

From a spot on Kazakhstan’s Kyzyl Desert, a spot that would later be called Tyura Tam, the R-7 erupted and rose aloft on a tower of flames, carrying the satellite into low orbit. Its simple radio transmitter broadcast only one thing – a beep, in A-flat.

Beep … beep … beep …

The Eisenhower Administration had known that the Soviets were doing something, so they weren’t really surprised. Hardliners on both sides of the political divide and ordinary Americans, on the other hand, were shocked and panicked; Russia, so recently hammered to its knees by Stalin and the Nazi invasions of the Great Patriotic War, had beaten us into space.

Recriminations followed. People thumped their chests and bloviated from bully pulpits about the Red Menace, Missile Gaps and the necessity of Getting Up There Fast. That last took a while, as our missiles had an unfortunate tendency to fail spectacularly. Our first satellite was a paltry thing compared to the size of the Soviet satellite, but it could do a few more things.

Beep … beep … beep …

The Soviet effort (called Sputnik, or companion) triggered the space race between the superpowers, and soon other nations were joining the party. The advances in science triggered by the efforts gave rise to a lot of the technology we enjoy today (smaller, faster and more powerful computers; lightweight materials technology, etc.) and culminated less than twelve years later with human beings setting foot on Earth’s Moon.

Another reaction to Sputnik was the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which changed educational priorities to math and science. After all, scientists were required if we hoped to beat the Soviets to the Moon and measure up to President Kennedy’s words to “do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Sputnik didn’t last long, falling to Earth less than a year after launch, but by then the Soviets had launched the first living things into space (among them, a mongrel dog named Laika).

Beep … beep … beep …

Sputnik’s launch was a defining moment in human history. When will the next Sputnik Moment come, and from where?

Beep … beep … beep …


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