‘Traveling companion’ orbits Earth 60 years ago

Sept. 29, 2017
by Mark Ollig

In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed the Internal Geophysical Year (IGY) to be recognized, from July 1957 to December 1958.

Scientists worldwide planned on observing geophysical phenomena, and its effects on earth.

Two countries had much bolder IGY plans, which were “out of this world.”

The US announced in 1955, it would place a scientific satellite into Earth’s orbit during the IGY.

The Soviet Union also announced its plans for launching an Earth-orbiting artificial satellite.

An historic event occurred Friday, Oct. 4, 1957, which caused the world to take a collective breath and look upward at the night sky.

At 10:29 p.m. Moscow Standard Time (2:29 p.m. Central Time), a Soviet R-7 two-stage rocket weighing 267 tons, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch complex in the remote Russian region of Tyuratam, inside the Kazakhstan Republic.

The R-7 was a Russian/Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile without the military warhead attachment.

Instead of a warhead, the rocket carried a 184-pound satellite payload called PS-1, better known as Sputnik 1.

Sputnik 1 was a highly polished 23-inch diameter metallic beach ball-sized sphere made of an aluminum-magnesium-titanium combination.

According to the English Oxford dictionary, “In Russian, the word sputnik means a ‘traveling companion.’”

Sputnik was jettisoned from the R-7 while in the weightlessness of space; some 142 miles above the Earth.

Sputnik 1 then settled into an elliptical orbit; circling Earth once every 98 minutes at a speed of 18,000 mph.

Sputnik’s 1-watt radio transmitter was powered from two of three on-board silver-zinc batteries. The third battery was used to power Sputnik’s internal temperature and other instrument systems.

The first artificially-made, Earth-orbiting satellite was sending out a curious radio signal from its four “cat-whisker” antennas extending 7.9 and 9.5 feet, respectively.

For the next three weeks, people all over the world became fixated, listening to the steady radio signal audio pattern of “beep-beep-beep-beep” being transmitted down through the Earth’s atmosphere by Sputnik 1.

Those beeps were being heard on the 20.005 and 40.002 MHz frequency radio bands.

Sputnik’s transmissions were closely listened to by American scientists, amateur shortwave radio operators, and others through their radios and televisions.

Ground-based telescopes could see the small, shining metallic sphere as it speedily flew across the night sky.

People peering up into the star-filled night sky saw a small, bright sunlit ball, Sputnik 1, majestically passing by.

While Sputnik 1 orbited the planet and sent its radio beeps, American emotions ranged from shock and amazement, to feelings of inspiration by witnessing the start of space exploration.

However, many people also feared Soviet satellites would be turned into space weapons.

Instead of a harmless beeping satellite passing over the US, some folks felt the next Sputnik would be carrying a nuclear warhead that could be dropped on them.

There was real fear, confusion, and much anxiety being experienced by many Americans at this time.

Recently, I asked my 87-year-old mother about Oct. 4, 1957, and Sputnik 1.

“I remember people were frightened; we didn’t know whether the Russians were going to attack us with their satellites passing over our heads,” she told me.

In an attempt to ease public anxiety, Oct. 9, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower said during a news conference, “Now, so far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota. I see nothing at this moment, at this stage of development that is significant in that development as far as security is concerned.”

However, the Soviet Union had clearly taken the technological lead in this “space race” with the US.

What did the Russian people feel about the launch of Sputnik 1?

Semyon Reznik is a Russian writer and journalist, who was a Russian college student Oct. 4, 1957.

In Peter Jennings’ 1998 second volume of a three-volume series of books, titled “The Century for Young People: 1936-1961: Defining America,” he quotes Reznik recalling a special Russian radio broadcast after Sputnik 1 obtained Earth orbit.

“On an October morning in 1957, we heard one of those [radio] voices announce, ‘Attention. All radio stations of the Soviet Union are broadcasting . . . Our satellite Sputnik is in space.’”

“I felt so proud. Who did it? We did it! The Soviet Union is first in space!” Reznik added.

Sputnik 1 continued to broadcast beeps until its radio batteries became drained of power Oct. 26, 1957.

The flight of the first Earth-orbiting satellite ended Jan. 4, 1958, when Sputnik 1 burned up as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

The US launched its first satellite into Earth orbit with Explorer 1, Jan. 31, 1958, at 9:48 p.m. Central Time.

Explorer 1 used a modified US Redstone ballistic missile to obtain the altitude needed for orbit.

March 31, 1970, Explorer 1 descended into Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated in the heat of re-entry.

One minute of recorded radio signal beeps from Sputnik 1 can be listened to at http://bit.ly/2fwmc6P.

Ten seconds of telemetry transmission from Sputnik 1 can be heard at https://go.nasa.gov/2whXCtp.

Become an online traveling companion with me by following my Twitter transmissions at @bitsandbytes.

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