Thursday, October 04, 2007

Happy Sputnik Day!

Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik One, the first satellite. The launch was part of the scientific activity for the International Geophysical Year. Conducted using an R7 launcher, originally intended to carry nuclear warheads, the presence of Sputnik One in the sky sent the world a message, one possibly unintended by the Soviets.
Sputnik was a complete surprise in the West, and the failure of the first two Vanguard launch attempts by the United States created the so-called "Sputnik Crisis" and the idea of the "Missile Gap". The response to Sputnik in America included bringing science and technology education front and centre. For instance, Sputnik did what the Scopes Monkey Trial could not -- it caused all laws restricting the teaching of the Darwinian theory of evolution to be repealed.

Fifty years on, the Soviet Union is no more -- ironically, the same American response to being second best in the race to put the first satellite into space caused a massive economic, social, and technological shift. The shift contributed to the moon landings a decade later, laid the groundwork for the laser and the computer chip revolutions, and likely led to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. In other words, Sputnik, and the world reaction to it, is one of the root causes of the world we live in today.

Sputnik is no longer in orbit -- it re-entered the atmosphere and burned up within three months after its launch. But the world that resulted from the Sputnik launch is still here, and still moving forward.

Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Sputnik!

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