Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=189776
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 12:00:27 PM CST
Courtesy of Asif A. Siddiqi/NASA
The Soviet Union launched Sputnik I into Earth orbit 54 years ago today, winning the first lap of the space race to the shock of the United States.
“Without a doubt, Sputnik I was a huge milestone in the history of the space race. It marked the first time that humans successfully flew something higher than the boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere,” said Michael Smutko, distinguished senior lecturer of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University.
The 184-pound, shiny, spherical satellite could be seen with the naked eye, and ham radio operators picked up its beep. Suddenly, the Soviet Union had surpassed the U.S. in science. In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviets had the technology to place spacecraft in orbit over the U.S. It was an advantage no one had had until that point.
“It was a wake-up call to the United States in terms of science and in terms of technology,” Smutko said. “I think historians are pretty much in agreement that, if it weren’t for Sputnik, we wouldn’t have made the advancements in such a short amount of time. We didn’t go to the moon for the sake of the going to the moon. We went to beat the Russians to it.”
Sputnik I and the Soviet Union’s progress spurred research and development in the U.S. toward advancements in space.
Sputnik I fell from orbit and burned up in the Earth's atmosphere on Jan. 4, 1958, just as the U.S. prepared to successfully launch its own satellite into orbit.
Carl McIlwain, professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, was already pursuing space exploration when Sputnik was launched. He worked alongside physicist James Van Allen and graduate student George Ludwig at the University of Iowa. The Iowa scientists were building instruments for America’s first satellites.
America launched the Explorer I satellite early in 1958, and the Iowa instrumentation led to Van Allen's discovery of the Earth’s radiation belts, the first scientific discovery of the space race.
McIlwain remembers feeling, “excitement while making measurements of the Sputnik radio signal.”
McIlwain said great scientific progress will continue in spite of financial limitations in space exploration.
“The future holds continued excitement with the continuous stream of scientific discoveries,” McIlwain said. “We need something similar [to Sputnik] to spur future attention and funding for science education and scientific exploration.”
The U.S. shuttered its own space shuttle program this year, leaving the future of human space exploration on a national level unclear. U.S. astronauts will continue to travel to the International Space Station.
“Unfortunately, the manned space life program in the U.S. has been greatly rolled back. We don’t have anything comparable and anything in the near future to take over,” Smutko said. “NASA and the astronauts in the U.S. have to sign up for a ticket to space from Russia. It’s kind of ironic. We’ve kind of come full circle. We have to get rides from the Russians.”
Robotic space missions continue to travel to places astronauts can’t go as of yet, such as the Juno mission launched to Jupiter this year.
Even though the space shuttle program in the United States is over, interest in space and science is still going strong, Smutko said.
“When you see an astronaut on TV, it’s an amazing thing. It inspires lots and lots of kids to learn more about it. Now, we don’t have that same kind of example for kids to follow. Hopefully, we’ll turn around and find the will and the financial resources to push the boundaries of space exploration again,” he said.
“There’s still a tremendous interest that people have in space and in science, and they’re kind of looking for leadership there as well. They find space exciting, and they want to know what they can do about it. How can we learn more? How can we do more? It’s frustrating that we’re losing the edge at a national level. At a local level, we’re having trouble finding ways to channel their interests.”