By Joe Schwarcz PhD, Author, USASEF Expo Performer, AT&T Sponsored Nifty Fifty Program Speaker
The “beep..beep..beep” sounded innocent enough, but it shook America to its very core. Why? Because it was coming from outer space! No, the military personnel monitoring radio signals did not pick up a transmission from aliens. This beep was coming from a transmitter placed inside a twenty-three inch diameter ball made of aluminum, titanium and magnesium. A ball that was orbiting the earth, passing over Washington DC every hour, emitting an irritating signal that sent a clear message: We are here and you are not! As far as the space race went, it seemed the Soviets were off to a flying start! The date was October 4, 1957.
The race for space had become hot and heavy in the 1950s with the Americans and Soviets engaged in a furious contest with heavy political overtones. The stated goal was exploration of space, to go where no man had gone before. The truth was more down to Earth.
By the middle of the twentieth century, both the Soviets and the Americans had an arsenal of nuclear weapons but lacked a truly effective delivery system. The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been dropped by airplanes, but these missions had surprise on their side. With the widespread introduction of radar, bombers were unlikely to evade defenses. Missiles were seen to be the ideal delivery system.
But there was a problem. Missiles at the time did not have intercontinental range. That’s why the Soviets had their eyes on installing missiles in Cuba and the Americans in Western Europe and Turkey. But clearly a missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon across the ocean was preferable. That, however, required a booster with much more oomph than any that had been developed up to that time.
The Germans had some success with the remarkable V-2, a rocket that terrorized Britain with its conventional payload during the Second World War. But Britain was only a couple of hundred miles away. A far more powerful rocket would be needed to carry a payload across the ocean. And one would make its appearance on that historic October day in 1957 when the Soviets stunned the U.S. by launching “Sputnik,” the world’s first artificial satellite. While this innocuous looking ball had no great practical importance, it had a huge political and propaganda impact.
To achieve earth orbit, a satellite has to be travelling fast enough to cancel out the pull of gravity. This is roughly 28,000 kilometers per hour, or 17,500 miles per hour. That’s faster than a speeding bullet! Furthermore, the satellite has to be boosted to an altitude where there is no longer any significant atmosphere to impede its forward motion due to friction with air. That’s about a hundred and sixty kilometers or a hundred miles up. By putting Sputnik into orbit, the Soviets had demonstrated that they had a booster rocket powerful enough to achieve the required speed and altitude, which also meant that they had a rocket powerful enough to reach America!
The Soviets followed the launch of Sputnik 1 just a month later with Sputnik 2. This had more than a radio transmitter inside. It had a live dog! Laika was the world’s first cosmonaut! Putting a man into space had been a long-standing dream, but some important questions had to be answered before risking a human life. How intense was solar radiation in space? How would high energy cosmic rays affect a living organism? What about the high acceleration of a launch? What would be the effect of weightlessness? Laika, Russian for “barker,” would answer some of these questions. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be barking for long. There were no plans to Bring Laika back to earth and she became the first casualty of the space race.
The U.S. finally managed to place a satellite into earth orbit three months later with the launch of Explorer 1, and thereby showed that it too now had intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities. Then in 1960 the Americans achieved their first “first” by orbiting Echo 1, a giant inflated metal-coated ball. This was the world’s first communication satellite. Radio and television signals could be reflected off its metal cover to circumvent communication problems caused by the curvature of the earth. But it didn’t take long for the Soviets to cast a shadow over this success.
In 1961 they pulled off another stunning breakthrough by successfully orbiting Vostok 1. This outdid the barking dog. The satellite had a talking man inside! Yuri Gagarin completed one full orbit of the earth before Vostok was slowed down by firing a rocket burst in the direction opposite to its travel, allowing gravity to take over and pull the satellite back to terra firma. Just two hours after being launched into space, Gagarin landed softly by parachute and delivered a hard blow to America’s ego.
The U.S had a rather weak rebuttal to Gagarin’s flight a couple of weeks later when it managed to launch Alan Shepard into space on a suborbital flight that lasted only about fifteen minutes. When asked what he thought about while he was sitting in his Freedom 7 capsule waiting “for this candle to be lit,” Shepard remarked he had been reflecting on the fact that “every part of this ship had been built by a low-bidder.” Unlike Gagarin, whose flight was controlled totally from the ground, Shepard at least got to exercise some piloting skills. Nine months after Shepard’s mission, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, going around the world three times.
In 1965, the Soviets scored another first when Alexei Leonov exited his orbiting capsule and “walked” in space, a feat soon duplicated by U.S. astronaut Ed White. Both the super powers were now primed to reach for the moon.
American technology triumphed in 1969 with one of mankind’s greatest achievements, the “successful landing of a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth,” a project initiated by President Kennedy just after Gagarin’s successful mission. But that “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” could not have been taken without the contributions of numerous scientists and engineers as well as astronauts and cosmonauts of both the human and animal variety. Next step, Mars! But don’t hold your breath. Going to the moon is virtually child’s play when compared with a mission to Mars. That is not to say it will not happen. American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard said it very well in 1904: “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”