Look! What's that up in the Sky? Sputnik I 60 years ago

10/04/17 - posted by Paul Judge

Sixty years ago tonight the sky change. No more would the night sky only be filled with stars, phases of the Moon, the five planets visible to the naked eye, occasional comets coursing the darkness, and meteors trailing briefly as they burned up in Earth’s upper atmosphere. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial object successfully launched into orbit around Earth. It was a small silver orb with antenna projecting outward allowing its small transponder to broadcasting a constant beep-beep-beep on a frequency heard by Ham Radio operators all over the world. The news was thrilling and scary. The story line feeding Americans was if Russians could launch a satellite into orbit they now had the ability to launch nuclear warheads towards the continental US of A and most any other place on the Globe. The tensions of the Cold War had definitely been ratcheted up in between the Eastern and Western Powers.

I remember how anxious people were to witness seeing Sputnik. We didn’t know what to expect. Neighbors in the Outer Richmond gathered away from street lights, on roofs, or backyards to glimpse this mighty little yet very big deal expected to cross the evening sky. Our family assembled on the back porch. At the time announced we watched as a pinpoint of light appeared from the NW and coursed a straight line towards the SE. We watched it knowing we were seeing a piece of history. Like satellites put into orbit ever since Sputnik reflected the Sun’s light down to our eyes until it dimmed and faded into Earth’s shadow. When viewing conditions allowed we watched Sputnik I and II many times. The United State’s effort to launch a successful satellite was a frustrating series of trial and errors until Explorer I finally reached orbit at the end of January 1958. Unlike Sputnik Explorer housed instruments enabling scientist to detect the Van Allen radiation belt that surrounds the planet. Echo I launched in 1960 and Echo II in 1964 caught our attention, they were simply metalized balloons folded into a nosecone and once reaching orbit inflated to passively bounce microwave signals from across the world. Upon inflation they were 100 feet in diameter making then very bright objects to view crossing the sky at night.

National TV News and weekly magazines described future space vehicles in what become ‘The Space Race’ over the next 14 years. Life magazine adopted the Mercury Astronauts who were trained to be the first Americans in orbit. Science classes in public schools got a boost in new funding, the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Science offered public programs about space exploration, and I remember educators from NASA making school presentations with vey cool models of space craft and launch vehicles in construction or on the drawing board to land astronauts on the Moon. On the mornings that the first American astronauts blasted off in their tiny Mercury capsules we’d watch TV along with a majority of the nation. We’d be late for school or in some cases not attend at all that day.

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