60 years ago, a small metal sphere changed the world overnight. On October 4, 1957 the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1, the first artificial satellite to be successfully placed in orbit around Earth. Sputnik was the beginning of humanity’s adventures and exploration of space.
Sputnik’s launch fueled the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, intensifying the tensions between the two countries locked in the Cold War. But this space race also powered leaps in science and engineering, and eventually peaceful cooperation in space.
“It had a tremendous impact on our country,” physicist Don Gurnett recalled to Seeker. Gurnett has been involved in space exploration since those very early days of the space age. He has since contributed to more than 40 missions to space, designing and building instruments for more than 35 spacecraft, such as Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini. He has also had a 52-year (and counting) career as a teacher and physicist at the University of Iowa, igniting the careers of new generations of engineers and scientists.
Sputnik was launched during the International Geophysical Year, a year dedicated to worldwide research on satellites and the atmosphere. The international scientific community had a goal of launching a satellite to orbit Earth, and there was a race to see who could do it first.
“I knew about the theoretical possibility of putting a spacecraft into orbit around Earth, and I was enthralled by the concept,” Gurnett said via phone from his office, “but when Sputnik was launched, our whole country was aghast at the fact that the Soviet Union had surpassed us. Because we were in the middle of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a potential enemy and with a Soviet object flying overhead, it showed the US was behind in space research.”
Sputnik-1 was 23 inches in diameter and could be seen from Earth, orbiting the planet about once every 96 minutes. It could also be heard by amateur ham radios, as Sputnik continually transmitted signals back to Earth. It provided some of the first data on the density of the upper atmosphere and the propagation of radio signals through the ionosphere. Sputnik transmitted signals for three weeks until its batteries failed.
The ensuing race by the US to catch up, Gurnett said, led to a revolution in what we now call STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math.