Thursday, October 04, 2007

Space Age is 50

On October 4, 1957 Sputnik was launched and the world changed. Prior to 1957, most people considered Spaceflight either an impossibility or some fantastic dream. The shock of Sputnik began the Space Age that we grew up in. We live in a world expanded enormously by the realm of Space.

The morning of October 4 Nikita Kruschev decided to purge General Zhukov, the hero of World War 2, for the imagined crime of plotting to seize power. That evening a telephone call from Chief Designer Sergei Korolev informed Kruschev of Sputnik's success. Despite his immense contributions, Korolev himself would suffer many unfortunate fates. He had already survived years in Stalin's gulags. Eventually Korolev would succumb on an operating table due to incompetent Soviet doctors. His identity as the Soviet Space program's "Chief Designer" remained a closely held secret.

The Nobel Prize Committee decided to reward the "Chief Designer," but did not even know his name. When requested, the Soviets balked at revealing Korolev's identity. Sputnik had been produced by many hands, and other designers thought themselves equally significant. The Soviets refused to identify Korolev, and the Nobel Prize went to someone else.

Engine designer Valentin Glushko considered himself Korolev's equal. "My engines could send into Space any piece of metal," he said at one meeting. After the success of Sputnik, Glushko and Korolev had a falling out and Glushko offered his services to rival Soviet rocket designers. History has repeated itself--the designer and the engine designer of Spaceship One no longer speak and are working on rival projects.

The aftermath of Sputnik led to a new awareness of science. Western governments pushed science education to keep ahead of the Russians. It is hard to believe that before Sputnik women were not allowed into MIT. As late as the 1960's some elite universities did not admit women. Many of today's successes, from Space engineers to internet millionaires, received their science education is Sputnik's aftermath. The desire to innovate drives many of us today.

Many people will comment on the effects of Sputnik. For those of us who were not alive, it is hard to imagine the shock. However, our whole lives have been lived in Sputnik's aftermath. The ways in which Space has changed our lives can not be overestimated.

More about Space in the new Carnival of space!



Blogger nige said...

Thank you for this very interesting article. As a kid I liked looking at the spacecraft in the Science Museum in London, and often wondered why the Soviet Union failed to put any astronauts on the Moon.

Maybe it is because of the way they treated their engineers like Korolev. But it is surprising that they managed to put the first satellite into orbit, and the first human being into space (Gargarin), but the Soviet Union did not succeed in even attempting manned moon landings.

They sent clever robotic probes like "Lunokhod" to the moon (a solar-powered remote-controlled lander with television cameras and sensors). See:

Lunokhod looks a bit like a scaled down version of the the Apollo lander. I suppose they just lacked a powerful enough, reliable rocket to send a heavier manned system to the moon. Presumably they would have had to build a rocket like the American Saturn V, and didn't have the engineers or the money because they were spending so much on ICBMs and the Cold War.

8:09 AM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

It is always nice hearing from you, nige. The story of how the US beat the Soviets is too long for this post. Going to the Moon is an immensely complex operation that the US won. The huge Soviet N-1 rocket was equivalent to Saturn V, but kept blowing up!

Though pre-occupied with Burma, I also saw that the UK was denied a chance to vote. I would enjoy hearing your opinion on the Gordon Brown situation, and whether he represents the people of Britain. If you wish your opinion kept confidential, email to

8:25 AM  
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6:07 PM  

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