Sputnik at 50

Bridge on the Rideau Canal

Even the Google logo has been altered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1: the first artificial satellite. As someone who spends a very considerable amount of time thinking about how things are going to be in 2050 and 2100, it is remarkable to reflect upon both how different the world is from that of 1957 and how similar it is. The big changes that occurred have often been in areas that few if any people would have anticipated the importance of back then. Areas of great enthusiasm, such as nuclear power and space exploration, have only progressed incrementally since the 1950s and 60s.

I mentioned one Sputnik-related irony in a paper published back in 2005:

At the end of August, 1955, the Central Committee of the Communist Party approved the Soviet satellite program that would lead to Sputnik and authorized the construction of the Baikonour Cosmodrome. This facility, the largest of three Soviet launch sites that would eventually built, was the launching place of Sputnik I (and subsequent Sputniks), and the launch site for all Soviet manned missions…

This former stretch of Kazakhstani desert was also, fatefully, the place to which Nikifor Nikitin was exiled by the Czar in1830 for “making seditious speeches about flying to the moon.” He might have taken cold comfort in the fact that in 1955, the Central Committee gave control of the site to the new Soviet ‘Permanent Commission for Interplanetary Travel.’

For all the drama, it remains unclear to me that manned spaceflight serves any useful scientific or practical purpose at this point in time (see previous). In that sense, perhaps Sputnik – rather than John Glenn – was the true template for humanity’s future involvement in space: an 83.6kg ball of metal with a radio transmitter.

PS. My thesis mentions one somewhat surprising connection between Sputnik and climatic science:

A fortuitous bit of funding produced one of the most famous graphs in the climate change literature: the one tracking CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Examining it closely, a gap can be seen in 1957, where David Keeling’s funding for the project ran out. The Soviet launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957 led to a marked concern in the United States that American science and technology had fallen behind. One result of the subsequent surge in funding was the resumption of the CO2 recording program, which continues to the present day.

This graph is the jagged, upward-sloping line that Al Gore devotes so much attention to near the beginning of An Inconvenient Truth.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “Sputnik at 50”

  1. “an 83.6kg ball of metal with a radio transmitter.”

    The important thing about Sputnik wasn’t really the metal ball. It was the rocket that put it in orbit, and that could have lobbed something a lot less pleasant a comparable distance.

  2. Sputnik
    Spacemen are from Mars
    Sep 27th 2007
    From The Economist print edition
    Half a century of space exploration has actually served to illuminate the Earth

    FIFTY YEARS ago the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite. Sputnik burst into orbit on October 4th 1957, in the midst of the cold war. It was a surprise to the world, a shock to many Americans, and the starting gun for the space race between the superpowers. Thereafter, America vied with the Soviet Union for supremacy in aerospace’s equivalent of “mine’s bigger than yours”, as successively taller rockets lobbed larger payloads further afield.

  3. From the archive

    Both Sides of the “Moon”
    Oct 12th 1957
    From The Economist print edition

    “NOT since the Middle Ages have men scanned the sky so eagerly for portents. The successful launching of the world’s first artificial satellite is enough to stretch anyone’s imagination. Some of this week’s zestful speculations—and some of the more cautious appraisals too—will no doubt be proved false in time; but there are certain things that can and should be said now. A milestone in human history has been passed. True, the launching of satellites was already listed, almost prosaically, among the projects of the International Geophysical Year. But the impact of the event, now it has happened, is still impressive. The Russian scientists deserve all the congratulations showered upon them.
    The layman, however, having duly hailed a scientific feat, finds he has more immediate things to think about than space-ship tickets. However loudly his more venturesome fellows are now baying for the (real) moon, the plain man’s first concern is to establish, in plain language, what it will all mean to the earthbound nations, not in the conjectural future, but in the next few months and years. His questions are blunt. Is this a new military threat? Has it upset the uneasy balance of power? Will it increase tension, or could it help to transform and moderate international rivalry? Or is it in sober fact almost irrelevant to the ordinary man’s hopes of peace and plenty?”

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