A Day in Astronomy: Launch of Sputnik

Image (Credit): Artist’s rendering of the orbiting Sputnik 1. (thegravitywell.org/)

On this day in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite, setting of a space race that continues to this day. The U.S. National Archives has a copy of minutes from an October 9 meeting between President Eisenhower and his advisors to discuss Sputnik I. The text accompanying the minutes demonstrates the shock this event caused:

At first, some in the Eisenhower administration downplayed the satellite as a “useless hunk of iron.” As David Halberstam wrote in The Fifties, “The success of Sputnik seemed to herald a kind of technological Pearl Harbor, which was exactly what Edward Teller said it was.” Others in America and around the world saw Sputnik as an ominous leap ahead in prestige and military ability, whether or not the new missiles could actually hit a target with nuclear weapons. President Eisenhower and some of his advisors, when they realized the significance of the Soviet achievement, met to discuss the alarming developments.

Of course, Russia is more of a wounded bear at the moment while China tries to take the lead in the latest space race. This is not to diminish what the Soviet Union accomplished in the last century, nor what Russia can accomplish tomorrow if it put its energy into science rather than war.