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Introduction to Space Exploration - A Cold War In Space Begins

satellite sputnik american earth

Webster's Dictionary defines a cold war as "a condition of rivalry, mistrust, and often open hostility, short of violence." The Cold War was such a conflict that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union between the end of World War II and the late 1980s. During this period both nations developed extensive nuclear weapons programs. Each thought the other was militarily aggressive, deceitful, and dangerous. Each feared the other wanted to take over the world. This paranoia was in full force when space travel began.

The International Geophysical Year

In 1952 a group of American scientists proposed that the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) sponsor a worldwide research program to learn more about Earth's polar regions. Eventually the project was expanded to include the entire planet and the space around it. The ICSU decided to hold the project between July 1957 and December 1958 and call it the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Geophysics is a branch of earth science concerned with physical processes and phenomena in the Earth and its vicinity.

The IGY time period was selected to coincide with an expected phase of heightened solar activity. Approximately every eleven years the Sun undergoes a one-to two-year period of extra radioactive and magnetic activity. This is called the solar maximum. The ICSU hoped that rocket technology would progress enough to put satellites in Earth orbit during the next solar maximum and collect data on this phenomenon.

In all sixty-seven countries participated in various ways in the IGY project. The American delegation to the ICSU was led by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS put together a team of scientists from businesses, universities, and private and military research laboratories to conduct American activities during the IGY.

Ballistic Missiles

Following World War II both the United States and the Soviets began researching the feasibility of attaching warheads to long-range rockets capable of traveling half way round the world. These weapons were eventually called intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs. They could be equipped with conventional or nuclear warheads. The U.S. had introduced the nuclear warfare age by dropping atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II.

By the early 1950s the U.S. Air Force was actively testing three different ICBMs under the Navaho, Snark, and Atlas programs. This work was highly classified as a matter of national security. The United States and Soviet Union both engaged in massive spying campaigns throughout the Cold War. In 1955 American spies brought word that the Soviets were close to completing ICBMs capable of reaching U.S. cities.

The Soviet rocket work was spearheaded by Sergei Korolëv. He oversaw development of the R-7, the world's first ICBM, and is considered the father of the Soviet space program.

Sputnik 1

The United States worked throughout the mid-1950s to construct a successful science satellite for the IGY. This work proceeded separately from ICBM development. However, at the time only the military had the expertise and resources to build rockets capable of leaving Earth's atmosphere. The Navy was charged with developing a rocket capable of carrying a package of scientific instruments into Earth orbit. In 1957 testing was still ongoing and proceeding poorly when the United States got a shock.

On the evening of October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union news service announced that the nation had successfully launched the first-ever artificial satellite into Earth orbit. It was called Sputnik, which means "companion" in English. The word also translates as "satellite," because a satellite is Earth's companion in an astronomical sense. The satellite weighed 184 pounds and was about the size of a basketball. It had been launched atop an R-7 Semiorka rocket. The satellite circled the Earth every ninety-eight minutes.

A Secret Surprise

The launch announcement of Sputnik 1 was a huge surprise to American scientists. They knew their Soviet counterparts were working on a science satellite for the IGY, but had no idea the Soviets had progressed so quickly. The American scientists had openly shared information about their research during ICSU meetings. On the other hand, the Soviet government forbade its scientists from disclosing any details about their work. Sputnik had been developed and launched in near total secrecy. Historians say the president of the ICSU learned about the launch at a dinner party, when a reporter from The New York Times whispered the news to him.

The American public was even more shocked by the announcement. Millions went outside in the darkness to look for the satellite in the night sky. Witnesses said it was a tiny twinkling pinpoint of light that moved steadily across the horizon. The satellite continuously broadcast radio signals that were picked up by ham radio operators all over the world. Ham radio is communication using short-wave radio signals on small amateur stations.

The Sputnik 1 signals were another unpleasant surprise for American scientists. It had been universally agreed that IGY satellites would broadcast radio signals at a frequency of 108 megahertz. The United State had already built a satellite tracking system designed for that frequency. Sputnik 1 transmitted at much lower frequencies, ensuring that U.S. scientists would not be able to pick up its data.

Sputnik 2—A Dog in Space

The success of Sputnik 1 caught America off-guard and unprepared. The public realized for the first time that the Soviets probably had the capability to launch long-range nuclear missiles against the United States. Only a month later there was even more shock when the Soviets launched a second Sputnik satellite.

Sputnik 2 was much larger than its predecessor and carried a live dog into orbit. Her name was Laika, and she was a huskie-mix. The American press nicknamed her "Muttnick." It was a one-way trip for her. There was no way to bring a spacecraft safely back to Earth. At the time the Soviet news agency bragged that Laika survived for a week aboard the spacecraft. Decades later scientists admitted that Laika died only hours after launch when she panicked and overheated in her tiny cabin.

America Reacts

The American public was scared by the size of Sputnik 2. It weighed more than 1,000 pounds. It was common knowledge that the United States did not have a rocket capable of carrying that much weight into space. There was an uproar in the media. Politicians demanded to know how the Soviet Union had gotten so far ahead of the United States in space technology. President Dwight Eisenhower charged the U.S. military to do whatever it took to put a satellite in space.

The Navy's efforts to build a satellite had proved unsuccessful. The military turned to Wernher Von Braun and his team of rocket scientists working for the U.S. Army. On January 31, 1958, the first American satellite soared into orbit. It was named Explorer I and rode atop a Jupiter-C rocket developed by the von Braun team at Huntsville, Alabama.

A few months later the Soviets answered with Sputnik 3, a miniature physics laboratory sent into orbit to collect scientific data.

In October 1958 the United States formed a new federal agency to oversee the nation's space endeavors. It was named the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although it was a civilian agency charged with operating peaceful missions in space, NASA would rely heavily on military help to achieve its goals.

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