Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sputnik was launched 50 years ago today

One of the biggest achievements in human history took place 50 years ago today on October 4th, 1957. That was the day that the Soviet Union launched Спутник-1, better known to we in the western world as "Sputnik 1" (it means "Co-Traveler 1"), the first artificial satellite to be launched into Earth orbit.

For something about the size of a beach ball, Sputnik raised a hella big furor back in the day, especially for Americans. Cartoons such as the one on the right bemoaned the fact that the Russians could now put something in the sky right over the United States and there wasn't anything that could be done about it. My personal favorite cartoon from the time was one where a Russian dude is telling an American woman "Who else can give you a moon?" Less than a month later the Soviets triumphed again when they launched Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika on board: the first living animal to be put into space (unfortunately Laika survived launch but died a few hours later from heat and stress).

The Americans didn't catch up with the Soviets until January 1958, when it launched Explorer I. Then it was a race to put a man into space. The Soviets not only did that but they put a woman up there, too. And then both sides set their eyes on the Moon...

The space age had begun.

In remembering the importance of this anniversary, I also feel obligated to honor the memory of the man who not only designed Sputnik, but was in every conceivable measure the father of Russian space flight...

Sergei Korolev was a man who over the past decade I have come to absolutely respect and admire. From a young age Korolev studied the works of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and other rocket researchers, and Korolev set out to make a reality out of the theory. It was Korolev who first proposed Sputnik, and from there he went on to oversee everything else in Russia's early space program. Korolev was a brilliant engineer and a man of remarkable vision who pulled off some amazing things. All of it in spite of the political posturing by the Soviet government that became more hindrance than help. One famous example was when Nikita Kruschev was visiting the United Nations and he phoned back to Russia and demanded that Korolev launch a rocket to demonstrate Russia's space superiority. Kruschev wanted that rocket and he wanted it "now!" So Korolev had no choice but to send one up. Unfortunately Kruschev was in such a rush that there was no time to properly prepare the rocket. It blew up on the launch pad and took hundreds of lives, including most of Korolev's staff at the site. The folks back home got boxes of dirt to bury. Korolev was furious! But he had no real choice but to keep heading the Soviet space effort. By the time he died in 1966, Korolev was already well into the design phase for an attempted Soviet lunar landing.

Anyway, to Sputnik and its creator, here's a toast raised in their honor on the anniversary of their historic journey!