Romance of Sputnik

Print edition : November 02, 2007

October 4, 1957: Sputnik-1, launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome, in what is now independent Kazakhstan. - HO/AFP

A film recaptures the thrill of the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth and the start of the space age.

October 4, 1957:

A FULL house spontaneously applauded the film, which received the undivided attention of the audience for about an hour, at the International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad on September 26. The film, on the launch of Sputnik-1 by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, captured the decisions that led to the launch, the massive preparations for it, and the views of the political decision-makers, who decreed that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics should put the simplest satellite in space. The key players included Sergei Korolev, one of the greatest missile/rocket builders of the world, Joseph Stalin, then First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Nikita Khruschev, who became Premier in 1958.

The film had rare archival shots of Stalin signing a decree that ultimately led to the launch of Sputnik; Khruschev approving Korolevs decision to launch an artificial satellite into space instead of a laboratory as was originally planned; Korolev getting Khruschevs consent to use the two best R-7 rockets for orbiting Sputnik; and so on. The commentary was by Dr. Boris Chertok, one of the few surviving members of the team that was directly involved in the launching of Sputnik. Throughout the one-hour film, there was not a single boast or vainglorious talk from Chertok about the space prowess of the Soviet Union, but the film laid bare in all clarity what a puissant country the Soviet Union was in the 1950s in its science, missile and satellite programmes.

The launch of Sputnik-1 changed the world in several ways. It was the first satellite launched into space by humankind. (A satellite is a celestial object going round a larger one. The term artificial satellite was coined in the 1950s to differentiate between man-made satellites and those in the solar system.) Sputnik proved that a man-made object could go round the earth. Until then, for billions of years, only the moon circled the earth. The moon now had a tiny competitor in the form of a metal ball that weighed about 83.6 kg and was 23 inches (58.4 centimetres) in diameter.

Isaac Newton, the English physicist, mathematician and astronomer, published his treatise called Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687, which was to remain the Bible of physics for the next couple of centuries. Newton explained in Principia how a man-made object could go round the earth: this became a technological reality in 1957 with the orbiting of Sputnik-1.

The launch not only heralded the advent of the space age but signalled the start of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. It hurt American pride as no other event had done before. Until then, the Americans had deluded themselves that their system was superior to any other countrys, with its democracy, technology and prosperity. So it was a body blow to American pride that the Soviet Union, with its closed society, could become the first country to launch a satellite.

Today, artificial satellites have become a part of peoples lives. There are remote-sensing satellites that provide information about the health of crops and the location of fish in the sea, predict droughts, help locate groundwater or discover oil and gas reserves. Weather satellites help forecast cyclones. This helps in minimising the loss of life with timely evacuation. Communication satellites have shrunk the world. They are the lifelines of telephone conversations across continents. If people are able to watch Wimbledon tennis live or withdraw money from automated teller machines at any time of the day, it is communication satellites they must thank. Sputnik-1 was the one that began it all.

In the film, Chertok did not forget to pay a tribute to Newton or recall the achievements of space pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovski, Robbert Goddard, Herman Oberth, Korolev and his associates, and Werner von Braun.

The film had frames of Khruschevs decision that the Soviet Union should build the worlds first inter-continental ballistic missile R-7. It was the R-7 that Korolev and his associates adopted with changes for the topmost stage of the rocket that delivered Sputnik-1 into orbit. According to Chertok, the original decision was to launch a laboratory into space. But Korolev suggested that the simplest satellite be launched into space atop the R-7. Korolevs decision was accepted [by Khruschev] Korolev got the consent from Khruschev to use the two best rockets for the launch of the simplest satellite, said Chertok.

The launch took place from the test range at Tyuratam, in the middle of a desert in Kazhakstan. This launch centre is now the well-known Baikonur cosmodrome in the independent republic of Kazhakstan. The film showed the stupendous facilities that the Soviets built in the 1950s in the middle of the desert. The film had frames of the Soviets fabricating the Sputnik, which was in fact a hollow aluminium sphere, polished to a sheen.

Laika, the first living creature to be sent out into space, on board Sputnik-2, launched on November 4, 1957.-TASS/AFP

Laika, the first

The metal ball, named PS-1, short for Prostreishy Sputnik, which in Russian meant a simple satellite, was filled with nitrogen. Inside it were two radio transmitters, one at 20 megahertz and another at 40 MHz, a battery, and pressure and temperature transmitters. There were four antennae jutting out of the ball.

After the launch, Sputnik-1 separated from the last stage of the modified R-7 and reached an apogee of 927 km and a perigee of 227 km. Amateur radio operators (HAMS) all over the world were thrilled to hear the beep-beep of Sputnik-1. As Sputnik circled the earth, it heralded the dawn of the space age. The U.S. was stunned. But Sputnik-1 made possible one of the greatest human endeavours the landing of man on the moon by the U.S. in 1969.

Sputnik-1 kept beeping for 20 days until its battery ran out. Its orbit started decaying slowly. It re-entered the earths atmosphere on January 4, 1958, and burned up.

A month after the launch of Sputnik-1, on November 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-2, which was heavier and bigger than Sputnik-1. Besides, it carried a dog called Laika. The purpose of sending Laika was to find out how living organisms adapt themselves to the space environment and whether weightlessness would affect them. It died after 10 days because its oxygen supply ran out.

On January 31, 1958, the U.S. sent its satellite called Explorer-1 into orbit atop a Jupiter-C rocket.

Even today, 50 years later, nothing bestirs the imagination of people across the globe like the launch of Sputnik-1.

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