Sputnik and the Start of the Space Race

05/21/2021

Today, we live in the age of vaccines and pandemic, but in the meantime, space exploration has not stopped. It is entering into a new age, the age of the space generation. Nowadays, the name of a certain vaccine sheds light on the history of space exploration and space technology. It is no coincidence that Russian scientists chose the “Sputnik” name in 2020: the origin of the term dates to the 1950s, to a spacecraft whose appearance changed the history of space exploration and even world politics. What was the original Sputnik?

The event

For millions of Americans, October 4, 1957, began as a usual day. They went to the movies, drove home from work, lived a social life, or just had fun somewhere. They lived in one of the golden ages of their history, after the victorious World War, and the prosperity of the consumer world spread more and more in their society. Indeed, the newspapers at the time had already read about the great flu pandemic affecting 200,000 residents of New York, but there was no cause for serious concern.

But then that day a basketball-sized object produced by a hostile empire made the frightening beep-beep noises that were later played on the radio.

The Soviets reached space sooner than the Americans did, and with that the space race began, in which the USA started with a handicap.

The aftermath

It was very difficult for the American public to bear to be defeat, considering they were informed about the superior status of the US before the event. The New York Herald Tribune, for example, published an article entitled “Lessons from Defeat” that bitterly acknowledged the facts.

The later Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who had risen after Stalin's death at the time, took advantage of the sudden spotlight. Given he believed in the superiority of communism and socialism, the propaganda potential of the event came to fruition. He talked about the fact that the small object named Sputnik, i.e. satellite, is only the first swallow and will soon be followed by the others. During the year: on November 3rd, Sputnik II, a much larger object was released into space with the Lajka, possibly the most famous dog that ever lived. (The first terrestrial creature to walk in space had an unfortunate fate: the lonely dog was out wandering the streets of Moscow when was found and shot out of space. In the absence of a returning capsule, she sacrificed her life for human technological advancement.)

At the same time, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower first sought to publicly ignore the (so far only more symbolic) grievance America had suffered. In a speech, he acknowledged the effectiveness of the Soviet teaching system but expressed doubts about the closed political climate. It was only later that he declared America would need a lot of scientists in ten years and that they would have to try to achieve this.

The US strikes back

The U.S. Navy, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, launched its satellite development project, Vanguard, as early as 1955, and began building the ever-legendary launch site, Cape Canaveral, in a well-known Florida area. In a great hurry, after a few weather-delayed launches, a small missile was scheduled to launch on December 6, 1957, but the live broadcast attempt was a failure. To make things worse, TIME magazine chose Khrushchev to be the man of the year in 1957. Could there be a return from so deep?

The U.S. didn’t start from scratch in the space race. At the end of World War II, nearly 100 highly educated German scientists thought it would be better for them in America than under Soviet rule. By 1957, most of them had gone from prisoner-of-war status to avid participant in the U.S. space program and gained American citizenship. The response of the Western world was therefore quick: on January 31, 1958, a rocket called the Explorer was launched. Although it was smaller in size than the Sputnik, it sent more data and more sophisticated information back to the ground control centre.

In 1958, NASA, perhaps the most well-known agency on Earth, was established. In October of the same year, the new space agency began recruiting their prospective astronauts, with the following expectations: a college degree (preferably in physical sciences), a test pilot degree, 1,500 hours of flight time, age under 40, and a maximum high of 152 centimetres. The first seven astronauts selected were presented to the press on April 9, 1959.

The Americans, however, fell behind again, as the Soviet Union managed to send the first human to space. He was Yuri Gagarin. Moreover, in 1963, the communist world power proved even more advanced in terms of gender equality, as Valentina Tyereskova became the first female astronaut.

Winning the war after many lost battles

In 1961, the ambitious young American President John F. Kennedy made the famous statement: before the end of the decade, the U.S. would send a man to the moon. With less budget, the Soviet space program managed to compete with the Americans only until the middle of the decade.

The U.S. public has been extremely enthusiastic about this program, and they have overlooked the fact that NASA is receiving a staggering amount of budget support with no practical benefit to the lives of the average people. A design competition was also launched: the American Gemini spacecraft became a two-seater, and Khrushchev ordered this by ordering a three-person spacecraft from the legendary Soviet engineer Sergei Korolev.

Paradoxically, domestic politics and the inner processes of the Kremlin slowed down the Soviet space program, while the American triumphed by sending Neil Armstrong to the moon. Khrushchev was replaced by the Party and was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who showed no interest in competing with the American space program.

When we hear great news like the evolution of private spaceflight (SpaceX et al.), Remember! It all started with a small piece of machinery called Sputnik.

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