Ep. 655: 65 Years of Space: Sputnik 1 Anniversary

It’s been about 65 years since the Soviets launched the first orbital satellite into low Earth orbit: Sputnik 1. Now there are thousands of satellites in orbit, with tens of thousands on the way. Let’s look at the impact that Sputnik had on the history of spaceflight.

Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

Space Launch System (NASA)

Sputnik 1 (NASA)

International Geophysical Year (IGY) (Eisenhower Presidential Library)

What is Ham Radio (ARRL)

Rocket Boys (Homer Hickam)

October Sky (1999) (IMdB)

Ten Thousand (xkcd)

Homer Hickam, Author

Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA)

Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (Wikipedia)

Space Camp

Spacelab (ESA)

Wernher von Braun (Wikipedia)

Explorer 1 Overview (NASA)

Yuri Gagarin (ESA)

First woman in space: Valentina (ESA)



Italian Space Agency


Starship (SpaceX)

Operation Paperclip (Wikipedia)

The Apollo Missions (NASA)

60th Anniversary of the John F. Kennedy Speech (Rice University)

Space Shuttle Era (NASA)

The Soviet Buran Shuttle: One Flight, Long History (National Air & Space Museum)

Eight Workers Feared Dead in Russian Cosmodrome Collapse (Los Angeles Times)

NASA’s Moon Rocket and Spacecraft Arrive at Vehicle Assembly Building (NASA Blogs)


Star Trek

Coming of Age in the Milky Way (Harper Collins)

The Women Who Mapped the Universe And Still Couldn’t Get Any Respect (Smithsonian Magazine)

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Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services

Fraser:                         Astronomy Cast, Episode 655: 65 Years of Space and the Sputnik 1 Anniversary. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. I’ve been a space and astronomy journalist for over 20 years.

                                    With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How you doing?

Dr. Gay:                      I am doing well. It is starting to be fall. We have experienced the equinox. RA has reset to its zero point. Life is good.

Fraser:                         Unless you are the space launch system.

Dr. Gay:                      That is my Gen X, constantly pessimistic joy of the week because it’s just sort of like – just sit back, eat popcorn, and watch a dance. It’s been back and forth and back and forth, going to launch, not going to launch,

Fraser:                         I don’t feel any of that. I feel just the anxiety of the tens of thousands of people who worked on this. And they really need it to launch to restore their honor. I feel for them. And I want this thing to fly. I don’t want it to fly very often. I don’t want it to fly beyond the number of times they’ve built this. But it’s already built. And now I want it to fly.

Dr. Gay:                      Yes. It deserves to launch. But I can enjoy the dance.

Fraser:                         Speaking of space flight, it’s been about 65 years since the Soviets launched the first orbital satellite into low Earth orbit, Sputnik 1. Now there are thousands of satellites in orbit with tens of thousands on the way. Let’s look at the impact that Sputnik had on the history of space flight. All right. So, first question then. What is the actual exact date of the anniversary?

Dr. Gay:                      October 4th, 1957. We are at 65 years. And it’s kinda glorious because that means three generations of people have got to benefit from space flight.

Fraser:                         Fourteen years before I was born, more like 16 for you.

Dr. Gay:                      Yeah, I’m a baby.

Fraser:                         So, really, our lifetimes have been space flight. There’s been space flight happening for our entire lives.

Dr. Gay:                      Now the story of Sputnik is a really cool one. What was really cool about this is the leaders of the two countries were really trying to both one up themselves. First, the Soviet leader and then Eisenhower here in the US said that in the Geophysical Year of science, we are going to launch something into space. And the Soviets got there first. And they really wanted to make a splash with what they were doing.

                                    So, Sputnik, which is just like 20-something inches wide and with these couple of feet long antennae, it launched. And it wasn’t just a spot in the sky with its highly polished outer shell, it was also transmitting at 20 and 40 MHz, which are frequencies that, well, any ham radio operator can listen to. So, as it went around the planet, every 0.3 seconds either a 20 Hz signal or a 40 Hz signal came. They were alternating the two so that they could actually study our ionosphere and other aspects of our atmosphere.

And anyone could just go outside, look up, see this strange new traveler. And the name “Sputnik” actually means travel together. And they could use a ham radio to listen. And back then, ham radios were much more common than they are today because…

Fraser:                         No internet.

Dr. Gay:                      Right. No internet, exactly. So, it’s just kind of amazing.

Fraser:                         So, the purpose of Sputnik, literally, was to just go “beep” in those radio spectres.

Dr. Gay:                      Yes, to be “beep” over and over and over in those radio spectres. And it actually caused an entire generation of children here in the US to say, “All right, I’m gonna do something that no one else has ever done before. I’m going to figure out how to make a rocket rocket.” And I think that the most famous group of humans to ever do this is a group that was called the “Rocket Boys.” And this is where we start talking about – he always went by Sonny – Sonny Hickam. Quentin Wilson, Jimmy O’Dell Carroll.

Fraser:                         Homer Hickam.

Dr. Gay:                      Homer Hickam. But he actually in real life goes by “Sonny” because he’s the second in his family.

Fraser:                         Right.

Dr. Gay:                      So, Homer Hickam, Jr., in reality, people just call him “Sonny.” So, there was this whole group of kids. It started with just four, the four you in the movie October Skies. But the next year there were six of them. And what I really love is they had the Big Creek Missile Agency. It was what they called their collection of people that were working to build rockets and go to the science fair.

Fraser:                         Did you know that Rocket Boys is an anagram for October Sky?

Dr. Gay:                      No. No, I did not.

Fraser:                         I don’t know if anagram is the right word. But if you scramble the letters between October Sky and Rocket Boys, it’s the same letters.

Dr. Gay:                      I learned something. I’m one of the 10,000.

Fraser:                         There you go. So, when were they building their rockets?

Dr. Gay:                      They were doing it right there in the 1950s. It was one of these – see the launch in October, work on science fair project for the school year, work on science fair project for the next school year, get accused of triggering fires they didn’t actually trigger.

Fraser:                         Right.

Dr. Gay:                      So, they were doing this as teenagers in high school. And Sonny Hickam went on to – he’s a veteran of Vietnam. He had a career before going into NASA. But he finally managed to get a job at Marshall Space Flight Center in 1991 as an aerospace engineer. And he was the person who trained the first Japanese astronauts to ever go into space. He assisted with the neutral buoyancy tank that anyone who has ever been to Space Camp has gone to see.

And, eventually, he got to train the astronaut crews for everything from Space Lab to repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and repairing Solar Max. He was one of those people that just saw how to make things work and also had the soft skills of knowing how to teach other people to make things work. And then he wrote a whole bunch of books. Go find them.

Fraser:                         Right, right. So, Homer Hickam and his crew. What were some of the other ways that Sputnik inspired the modern space exploration race?

Dr. Gay:                      Space race. Space race is clearly the right word. And when Sputnik took off, the US didn’t think we were gonna be beat. So, this led to an acceleration of transforming missiles into rockets. And this was actually something that Wernher von Braun had really been looking forward to. So, for the crew down at Marshall Space Flight Center, that Sputnik launch was a chance to say, “Hi, please give us all the money we actually need to get a spacecraft into space.” And we did it.

                                    And this started the constant one-upmanship between the two nations where Russia was the first to get into space. Russia was the first to do a whole lot of things. They weren’t the first to Mars. Mars likes to defeat them.

Fraser:                         Right. But after Sputnik, the Americans launched theirs. Was it Explorer 1, the first American satellite? But then the Soviets put a human into orbit with Yuri Gagarin, and that was a surprise.

Dr. Gay:                      Yes.

Fraser:                         And then they had the first woman in orbit. They did a ton of things one after the other demonstrating that they were masters of space flight relatively speaking.

Dr. Gay:                      And then the Soviets, as part of their space race, helped other nations like China start to get involved. And we here in the US have helped other nations; partnering with the European Space Agency, partnering with the Indian Space Agency, now the Italian Space Agency on the DART mission.

                                    So, what we’ve been seeing is this competition between groups of nations to do amazing scientific exploration. And the recognition that we may have started with a single tiny satellite I could’ve picked up and walked away with to now working on heavy-lift rockets aimed at creating a permanent presence on the moon the way we have a permanent presence in lower Earth orbit.

Fraser:                         Potentially, a fully reusable two-stage rocket. What’s amazing is you go back and you look at the pictures of the rockets envisioned by Wernher von Braun when he had his Mars project book where he was imagining humans flying to Mars and you look at the rocket, it looks exactly the same as the Starship, the stainless steel, the same general shape of the rocket itself. Everything is almost identical. It’s kind of amazing how much.

                                    And when you think about, they had figured out the basic laws of physics back in the 20s even with Goddard and the first round of people thinking about space flight. Even the Chinese 1000 years had figured out the basic physics of this process.

Dr. Gay:                      Yes, yes.

Fraser:                         And it was a matter of us not necessarily having the technology, the automation, the experience to make the reality live up to the dream. But we knew what a rocket should look like. We knew how much energy was required to carry X amount of mass into space, etcetera.

It’s astonishing to me. I think I’ve mentioned this in previous shows that if you go back, every cool idea that you can think of right now, there is a paper from the 1960s from NASA that describes it. It has already been thought of, everything. Moon bases, moon rovers, Mars missions, Mars landers, inflatable habitats, artificial magnetospheres. Everything was already thought of back in the 1960s. They just couldn’t make them happen yet, nuclear rockets, ion engines, everything.

Dr. Gay:                      The way I often think of it is as Leonardo da Vinci was to so many decades, centuries of inventions where he could draw the things that were yet to come, including helicopters, Wernher von Braun and the people that worked with him had that same futuristic creativity to see what needs to happen in a time when they couldn’t actually make it happen.

                                    And while it was a long time to go from Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter drawings to actually having helicopters, with Wernher von Braun, it’s three generations.

Fraser:                         Also, Wernher von Braun was a Nazi.

Dr. Gay:                      Well, yeah.

Fraser:                         People are always like, yeah, but he was a Nazi. Yeah, he was a Nazi.

Dr. Gay:                      Yes, he was a Nazi.

Fraser:                         Yeah, anyway.

Dr. Gay:                      He was part of the Paperclip project of people. Basically, the Soviets and the Americans split up the scientists that had been working to develop the V1 and other rockets in Germany. And with the Paperclip project in the US, they brought them here and basically gave them forgiveness for whatever else they had been responsible for in exchange for building rockets and putting America in space.  

Fraser:                         Some of the chat is saying, “But he was our Nazi.” Yeah, he was bought and paid for, and he was forgiven and could then build rockets and carry the Americans forward into the modern age of space flight. Anyway, people always say it, as if we forget that. No, he totally was a Nazi.

Anyway, all right. So, I think the biggest ripple, implication of the first satellite launch was it leading to humans going to the moon, the Apollo program.

Dr. Gay:                      Yeah. And that was very much part of that space race, where if we could get someone to walk on the moon, that was the greatest challenge we can accomplish. And I think the importance of Kennedy’s speech, which its anniversary was last week – he gave that speech at Rice University and made it clear that we are a nation of basically creative people. And we’re going to take that creativity, that will, and that American drive to work hard. And we’re gonna turn it into the greatest endeavor of humankind.

And then he was murdered, assassinated. And that ads an extra willpower to something. So, there was the – we’re going to do this because we’re going to show the world how hard we work, how creative we are, and how well we can engineer things. And we’re gonna do it for this guy who was assassinated in his honor. And all of those emotions make it so easy sometimes in the grand scheme of hard to accomplish masterful things. And I don’t think we’ve had that combination of emotion and desire to prove who we are since then.

                                    With its completely new technology, its completely new way of doing things, the shuttle program in a lot of ways showed the world, hey, we’re not just gonna fly rockets. We gonna fly space planes. And the Soviets – they tried. And one of the greatest sadnesses of the past decade is the warehouse where they were storing the Buran, the roof collapsed right on top of the spacecraft. It breaks my heart that this spacecraft never made it into the museum it belonged in.

Fraser:                         Yeah, no kidding.

Dr. Gay:                      And now we’re trying to prove without the emotional drive in a lot of ways that we can get back to the moon. And it’s become not a passion project because I really think the space race was a passion project.

Fraser:                         100% agree.

Dr. Gay:                      It has now become – we have to complete this workbook that was assigned to us. 

Fraser:                         Are you talking about the space shuttle? Or are you talking about space flight now?

Dr. Gay:                      I’m talking about the SLS that is currently roving very slowly to escape a hurricane.

Fraser:                         Right.

Dr. Gay:                      I feel like our new – you have to make it back to the moon by 2024, which we’re not gonna do – it has really taken on the emotional energy of I’ve been assigned a workbook to complete. And that just creates a completely different energy around something.

Fraser:                         But, Sputnik was un-crewed. It was just a robotic spacecraft. And if there’s one part of this industry has that grown dramatically, it is robotic spacecraft.

Dr. Gay:                      Yes.

Fraser:                         I am using Starlink right now to communicate with you. So, I am depending on a robotic spacecraft to carry my images and audio to you. But there are weather satellites, communication satellites, military satellites, navigation satellites, space telescopes. There are thousands and thousands of these devices orbiting the planet making our lives better.

Dr. Gay:                      And what really gets me is that first Sputnik, like I said, was something I could pick up and walk away being just 23 inches in diameter. My hands are off screen. So, right off screen would be 23 inches. It would be considered a CubeSat basically today. And it was transmitting in two frequencies. It did it for a couple of months. Drag caused it to fall back through the atmosphere. It was a CubeSat.

And today on similar CubeSats we can pack so much more information. And to see us go from launching little tiny things to launching huge things capable of all sorts of things to, again, launching little tiny things, it’s fun to see how in a lot of ways we’ve really gone full circle in the kinds of stuff we’re putting into space.

Fraser:                         There was a paper I was reading or an essay I was reading today. And the guy made the point. He said that if people want it and it doesn’t break the laws of physics, then it’s probably inevitable. And being able to communicate to any other human being on Earth from anywhere on Earth is the kind of thing that we want. It doesn’t break the laws of physics. Therefore, it’s probably inevitable.

Dr. Gay:                      Right.

Fraser:                         And we are seeing this as imagined in Star Trek when they pop out their little communication device and communicate with each other. That’s the path that we’re moving, to be able to know where we are, to communicate, to know the weather, to study the planet, to study the universe.

Dr. Gay:                      And Sputnik started out on a 65-degree inclination orbit, which means that if you have our planet, its orbit was going from +65 north to +65 south every time it went around the planet in about 100 minutes. And because it was going around the planet in 100 minutes, each 65-degree orbit passed over a different part of our planet. And it was able to pass over pretty much every single human in our world.

So, there was no one who didn’t get to be part of this experience. And today we’re filling that same kind of inclination orbit with Starlinks so that everyone can have a chance to use it. So, to see the similarities between these projects is something that just brings me to light.

Fraser:                         And every astronomer, no matter where they are, they can’t run. They can have their skies ruined by Starlink.

Dr. Gay:                      Yes, this is true. I cannot deny this.

Fraser:                         So, this is the world that we find ourselves in. Now what do you think of the ripples as they continue on? Do you think that this story will remain as important in terms of space exploration legend, both Sputnik and the space race?

It was before our time. So, we don’t know what it felt like. But I’m sure some people who are listening or watching have this visceral response of what it was like to know, to go from a time when there were no artificial satellites to a time there were artificial satellites. Do you think that that legend will carry on into the future?

Dr. Gay:                      I think the legend will hit in different ways for different people. One of the things that made me feel like I had a role model – and role models really matter; representation really matters – I have this extremely strong memory in ninth grade being in the backseat of the car with my then boyfriend. And we were both nerds. And we were reading Timothy Ferris’ Coming of Age in the Milky Way book. He lived on Cape Cod. I lived in Northern Massachusetts. We were driving him home. We met at Space Camp.

Fraser:                         That is the ultimate nerd. Oh my god.

Dr. Gay:                      Yeah. And we were both reading. And we hit the part in the book Coming of age in the Milky Way where it talked about the Harvard college women and the amazing work they did figuring out how to measure distances in space using our [inaudible], figuring out the spectra of stars relate to the temperature of stars. All of these amazing things that were done by women who society otherwise cast out because they either had physical issues, hearing, or they were too smart to find a husband, which was a thing at the time.

And when you’re a nerd with the last name Gay, life is kinda hard in the 80s. And sitting there reading about these women who overcame all the societal, yeah, we have no need for you issues, to make these amazing discoveries in the universe. That was life changing for me.

And I think that Homer Hickam’s books that he’s written – I think all of the books that have been written about rocket history by so many different people are going to someday cause some other eight-grader probably sitting in an electric vehicle where you don’t worry about the backseat because it’s self-driving. So, you’re both in the front seat sharing, reading the book, and your parents don’t have to be with you.

That’s a weird future, but we’re headed there. I can imagine those kids reading the story of how Sputnik inspired an entire generation and seeing themselves represented in that coalminer’s village and deciding I too can build rockets. And that’s powerful. 

Fraser:                         All right. Well, we’ve reached the end of our episode. So, happy birthday Sputnik 1. Congratulations to the giant standing on the shoulders of giants standing on the shoulders of giants that got us to this modern spaceflight realm that we find ourselves in. Thanks, Pamela. And we’ll see you next week.

Dr. Gay:                      Thank you, Fraser. And thank you to all of our patrons on patreon.com/astronomycast. I know times are tough. I’ve seen people having to give up their Patreon accounts. And I’ve reached to a few basically to say, “Hey, are you okay? Because you’ve been around for years.” Times are tough. And I’m so grateful to all of you who are still here.

I would like to thank Gabriel Gauffin, Dean, Sean Martz, John Drake, Roland Warmerdam, Sam Brooks and his Mom, john öiseth, Corinne Dmitruk. Oh, no. They put a pronunciation guide in there. Thank you.

Fraser:                         Nice.

Dr. Gay:                      I’d like to thank Naila, Bart Flaherty, Connor, The Air Major, Brian Kilby, Lew Zealand, Arcticfox, Jordan Turner, Leigh Harborne, Jason Kardokus, PAPA1062, Robert Hundl, Kim Barron, Vitaly, Paul Esposito, Arthur, Latz-Hall, Frank Stuart, Ganesh Swaminathan, Bob Zatzke, Nate Detwiler, Ruben McCarthy, Ron Thorrsen, Timelord Iroh, Daniel Donaldson, Ian Abdilla, and Geoff MacDonald.

                                    If you too would like to be part of our Patreon community and have me potentially mispronounce your name in hopefully amusing ways, go to patreon.com/astronomycast. And your patronage allows us to pay the small fleet of people who are going to suffer through editing this episode that was interrupted by so many random dudes in my driveway causing me to be slightly creeped out.

Fraser:                         And the dogs.

Dr. Gay:                      Thank you. And the dogs.

Fraser:                         Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next week.

Dr. Gay:                      Bye-bye.

Astronomy Cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy Cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So, love it, share it, and remix it, but please, credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website, astronomycast.com.

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