Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sputnik @ 50

Today is Thursday, 4 October 2007.

The 50th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, the first human-made artifact to orbit the Earth.

Sputnik was about the size of a basketball, employing the crude telemetry of its time (instrumentation could only measure atmospheric density). Sputnik’s most important function was to transmit a beeping tone back to Earth, supposedly illustrating the superiority of Soviet science and technology.

Hear the sound of Sputnik:

Of course, it wasn’t really much of a break-through moment. Once the relatively-paltry technical problems had been solved of building rockets capable of tossing thermonuclear bombs across the Atlantic and Pacific, orbiting a hunk of metal weighing 184 pounds was no great feat. The first American orbiter, Explorer-1, was launched 1 February 1958, and weighed 31 pounds.

Predictably, the American military-industrial complex sounded a ludicrous alarm: the Commies could lift a satellite 6 times heavier than the American! Of course, this actually reflected the inferiority of Soviet technology, whose less-sophisticated techniques always required greater mass to achieve equivalent or inferior results to the American. In point of fact, Explorer-1 carried a crucial piece of instrumentation, a Geiger counter, which provided the data which led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts (highly charged particles – plasma – pinned in place by Earth’s magnetic field).

Sadly, predictably, the useful benefits of space travel (e.g., weather and communications satellites) were incidental to the true motivation: the militarization of space. The father of American rocketry, Werner von Braun, had learned his trade as a loyal acolyte to Adolf Hitler, directing creation of the V-2 rocket program at Peenemuende, where he employed tens of thousands of slave laborers from concentration camps, many of them perishing under the most brutal conditions. (In Mort Sahl’s immortal phrase: “Von Braun may aim for the stars, but he usually hits London”.)

In the 1950s, Von Braun lobbied fiercely for the construction of massive orbiting space stations, from which nuclear-tipped rockets could be fired to exterminate any location on Earth. (He hoped to achieve the uber alles he had failed to achieve for Nazism. Or as Tom Lehrer’s lyric put it: “Vonce it goes up, who cares vhere it comes down? Und I’m learning Chinese, says Werner Von Braun”.) Poor Werner: he had to settle for surface-to-surface intercontinental ballistic missiles.

(Incidentally, most of the people who thought they observed Sputnik crossing the night sky didn’t, as it was at best magnitude 6. What the vast majority saw was the third stage rocket booster, tumbling along in the wake of the satellite, and of magnitude 1. The first satellite visible to the naked eye was Echo-1, launched by the U.S. on 12 August 1960. It was a 100-foot in diameter balloon of metallized polymer, off which telephone, radio, and television signals were bounced and re-directed. Brighter than most stars, it was probably, during its almost 8-year life, seen by more humans, including your author, than any other human-made artifact in space.)

Your author remembers Sputnik well, and the great hopes for the next decade and a half, of a humane and humanly-useful expansion of humanity into space. It was not to be. Given the tragedy humanity has made of this planet, it is probably best that we are on the verge of so depleting Earth of many natural resources that we shall never colonize space.

(For more than 40 years, one of my favorite novels (particularly about the whole "space" issue) has been Earthlight, by Arthur C. Clarke (1955), philosophical musings disguised as a science fiction novel. The Talleyrand quote at the conclusion is worth the price of admission.)


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