Video: Sputnik remembered

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updated 10/3/2007 9:08:08 PM ET 2007-10-04T01:08:08

With a series of small beeps from a spiky globe 50 years ago, the world shrank and humanity’s view of Earth and the cosmos expanded.

Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched by the Soviets and circled the globe Oct. 4, 1957. The space age was born. And what followed were changes to everyday life that people now take for granted.

What we see on television, how we communicate with each other, and how we pay for what we buy have all changed with the birth of satellites.

Communications satellites helped bring wars and celebrations from thousands of miles away into our living rooms. When we go outside, weather satellites show us whether we need to carry an umbrella or flee a hurricane. And global positioning system satellites even keep us from getting lost on unfamiliar streets.

Sputnik gave birth to more than mere technology. The threat of a Soviet-dominated space spurred the U.S. government to increase tenfold money spent on science, education and research. Satellite pictures of Earth inspired an embryonic environmental movement.

Spy and communications satellites also kept the world at relative peace, experts say. Just last week, scientists used commercial satellite images to document human rights violations in Myanmar.

When Sputnik was launched, the public thought a space future would consist of gigantic space stations and colonies on the moon and other planets. The fear was warfare in space raining down on Earth.

“The reality is that the things we expected did not come to pass, and the things that we did not fathom changed our lives in so many ways that we cannot even envision a life that’s different at this point,” said Roger Launius, senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

America got a taste of that in May 1998. Just one communications satellite malfunctioned. More than 30 million pagers went silent. Credit card payment approvals didn’t work. National Public Radio and CNN’s Airport Television Network went off the air in some places.

“The civilization we live in today is as different from the one that we lived in the mid-1950s as the mid-1950s were from the American revolution,” said Howard McCurdy, an American University public policy professor. “It’s hard to imagine these things happening without space. I guess I could have a computer, but I wouldn’t be able to get on the Internet.”

All thanks to an 184-pound (84-kilogram) metal ball with spikes shot into space by a country that doesn’t exist anymore.

Totalitarianism? Totally opposite
Because Sputnik was launched by a centralized communist government, people feared that space would help totalitarianism, said Georgia Tech University history professor Steve Usselman.

However, satellites “clearly undermined state authority, particularly national authority,” Usselman said. “It’s taken us in exactly the opposite direction.”

As satellites went commercial, they spurred on financial markets, opened up information to people across the globe — which is not what centralized governments want, Usselman said.

Spy satellites also enabled countries to keep an eye on their enemies.

“Except for crazy guys in airplanes, nobody can pull off a sneak attack,” McCurdy said. “I think it made the world much less dangerous than it was in 1956.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 said that it was thanks to satellites that “we know how many missiles the enemy has and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were doing things we didn’t need to do. We were building things we didn’t need to build. We were harboring fears we didn’t need to harbor.”

Weather wizardry
Weather satellites now give people an accurate view of threats from nature, as well as vastly improved everyday forecasts, said Keith Seitter of the American Meteorological Society. They save lives when hurricanes approach, giving days of notice instead of hours.

“It’s very hard to be surprised these days with the kind of data we have available with satellites,” Seitter said. “Certainly 50 years ago that wasn’t the case.”

In television, satellite communications let upstart networks like HBO, CNN and ESPN develop and feed cable systems via satellite. That brought world events live to people around the globe. But it also allowed people to isolate themselves with niche channels, Usselman said.

Henry Lambright, a professor at Syracuse University, said satellites have had practical benefits, but “the more important benefits are looking at Earth as a whole and looking outward at Earth in the cosmos.”

Initial pictures of Earth from space, especially Apollo images from the moon, were embraced by an environmental movement to show how fragile the planet is.

The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and others have given people views of the universe that not only go trillions of miles away, but billions of years back in time.

“The launch of Sputnik actually triggered heightened interest among the American people, not only in space, but in science, mathematics and education,” said White House science adviser John Marburger. “It also opened up people’s eyes to the possibility that space could actually be used for something.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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