Friday, October 05, 2007

Sputnik – 50 years on

Russia held celebrations yesterday at Star City to mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik 1. Scientists, engineers and cosmonauts gathered at the space training facility near Moscow to recall the launch of the small spiky module that began the world’s space race. Military officials also laid flowers at the grave of the father of the Soviet space programme, Sergei Korolyov, who is buried at the Kremlin walls.

Sputnik is Russian ("Спутник") for “travelling companion”. Sputnik 1 was an 83 kilo, 56cm diameter sphere with four antennas connected to battery powered transmitters. The transmitters broadcast a continuous "beeping" signal to a suitably impressed earthly audience for 23 days. Sputnik was tiny, barely twice the size of a football, but it could orbit the Earth in 96 minutes.

In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) decided to establish the International Geophysical Year (IGY) to coincide with the high point of the 11 year solar cycle of sunspot activity later that decade. By some quirk of science, this “year” lasted a whole 18 months from July 1957 to December 1958. The US embraced the IGY program with investigations of aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, the ionosphere, determinations of longitude and latitude, meteorology, oceanography, seismology, solar activity, and the upper atmosphere. But the ICSU called on its members to do something more: it wanted nations to launch a satellite to map the Earth’s surface.

By 1957 Russia was ready to answer the challenge. In August the Soviets tested their R-7 Semyorka the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. While the test failed, they designed a modified version of the R-7 for its first space test. Two months later, the R-7 launched Sputnik from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The US was so disturbed by this apparent victory for communism, President Eisenhower gave the go-ahead to create a new federal agency to co-ordinate its space program. NASA was born a year later.

But while the Americans played catch up, the Russians went on to further success. Within a month of Sputnik 1, the Soviets launched the dog Laika into orbit aboard Sputnik 2. Laika was a stray dog picked off the streets of Moscow to become the first living being in space. She didn’t last long. Although Russian authorities told the world, she survived for four days in space, in truth she died within hours of take-off as her pulse rate increased to three times its normal level probably due to overheating, fear and stress. Laika was the first of 13 dog launched into space by the Russian in the next ten years. Scientists used dogs because they could best stand the long periods of inactivity. All thirteen were female as they did not lift their leg to urinate.

The Sputniks led to a string of successes for the Russian space program. In 1961 the tiny Yuri Gagarin became a giant figure as the first man in space – it helped he was just 157cm tall. In 1965 cosmonaut Alexei Leonov exited the airlock of the Voskhod 2 spacecraft to make the first spacewalk. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the US finally took the lead with its Apollo missions to the moon with its crowning achievement of Neil Armstrong landing on the surface of the Moon.

Fifty years after Sputnik, there are now more than 800 satellites orbiting the Earth. NASA now acknowledges the debt they owe to the pioneer spacecraft. Michael Griffin, NASA’s head, went to Moscow for the 50th anniversary celebrations. He told the Russian Academy of Science how important the early Russian work was. "Without Sputnik there would have been no Apollo,” he said. “Indeed, when the space race of the 1960s was over, it may be said that we in America lost some of our own momentum."

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