50 years of the Space Age

Scale model of Sputnik 1, from the Muzeum Tekniki, Warsaw, PolandBy Lyle Bateman
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant events of the 20th century. Technology never exists in a vacuum … no matter what technical advancement we think of, there are always social, political, and ideological currents swirling around it as well as the technical ones. But, from time to time, a technical achievement happens that is so significant, it makes others pale in comparison. Such is the story of Sputnik 1, the first human object ever to orbit the earth.

Birthed in an age of the intense political rivalry of the Cold War, Sputnik was certainly a technical achievement. The rocketry power, the orbital physics, the construction and materials engineering seem crude by today’s standards, but in 1957, they represented the state of the art in a infant industry. It would take the Americans another 3 months to achieve a similar feat with Explorer 1, and in the meantime, the Soviets would launch Sputnik 2 in November, including Laika the Dog as the first living creature to orbit Earth. On this day 50 years ago, the Soviet Union seemed to be gaining the upper hand in technologies ranging from missile power through life support.

But Sputnik went far beyond a mere technical achievement. In fact, history shows us it didn’t even really represent much of a technical edge over the US. Despite the setbacks of late 1957, the US would of course go on to match and surpass the Soviets in space technology, culminating in Apollo. While it was less than clear in October of 1957, history shows that Sputnik was really a public relations stunt, one that succeeded on a massive scale, at least in the short term.

Politically, Sputnik was a huge boon for the Soviet Union. The R-7 Launch Vehicle that sent Sputnik into space was a potent visual symbol of power with disturbing and frightening implications in the area of nuclear warfare, and Sputnik itself, orbiting high above the earth with temperature sensors and radio equipment, heralded the age of communications satellites to come. The launch ignited a crisis in the US government, often called the Sputnik Crisis, made worse by the US’s own early failures, but at the same time it also fueled the incredible technical spurt by the American space program in the 1960’s. Without the fear generated by the Sputnik launch, and the resulting Space Race, its questionable whether there would have been the political will in the US for the Apollo program’s eventual trips to the moon.

It’s rather remarkable to think that the Space Age is only 50 years old. While technology had been coalescing around humans sending things to space for decades prior to October 4th, 1957, before the launch of Sputnik there were very real, very serious concerns about the viability of space travel in general. Sputnik put many of those fears to rest, and at the same time launched a whole new set of them. It really wasn’t much of a satellite, that first Sputnik, especially not from today’s perspective. But there are very few other technical achievements of the 20th century … the first car, the first airplane, the first computer perhaps … with the social and political power and scope of the Sputnik launch. It set off a chain of events that defines a large part of who we are today, and it’s hard to overstate the significance of that. Happy Birthday, Sputnik 1, and Happy Birthday to the space program as a whole.