Fifty years ago, a spiky metal globe changed everything
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 on October 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 kilometres 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 United States 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 Burma.
Future in space
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,” says Roger Launius, senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
The US 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 civilisation 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,” says 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 83,5kg metal ball with spikes shot into space by a country that does not exist any more.
Because Sputnik was launched by a centralised communist government, people feared that space would help totalitarianism, says Georgia Tech University history professor Steve Usselman.
However, satellites “clearly undermined state authority, particularly national authority”, he says. “It’s taken us in exactly the opposite direction.”
As satellites went commercial, they spurred on financial markets and opened up information to people across the globe—which is not what centralised governments want, Usselman says.
Keeping an eye
Spy satellites also enable countries to keep an eye on their enemies. “Except for crazy guys in airplanes, nobody can pull off a sneak attack,” McCurdy says. “I think it made the world much less dangerous than it was in 1956.”
US 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 harbouring fears we didn’t need to harbour.”
Weather satellites now give people an accurate view of threats from nature, as well as vastly improved everyday forecasts, says 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 such as 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, says 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 kilometres 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,” says White House science adviser John Marburger. “It also opened up people’s eyes to the possibility that space could actually be used for something.”—Sapa-AP
On the net
Hear the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik that Nasa’s history office has saved