Space & Innovation

The Inside Story of Sputnik's Effect on the US Space Program

An embarrassment for the US at the outset of the space race eventually gave way to a period of scientific diplomacy with Soviet researchers.

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.

Gurnett had arrived at college just 10 days before Sputnik’s launch. Unbeknownst to him, Dr. James Van Allen was also at the University of Iowa at work on a spacecraft with aerospace engineer Werner Von Braun and William Pickering from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Van Allen was designing the primary science instrument for the spacecraft, a cosmic ray detector that was designed to measure the radiation above the atmosphere.

But before the US could get a rocket for the payload to launch successfully, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-2 with Laika the dog on board.

“Sputnik-2 weighed over 1,000 pounds, the weight of the spacecraft was astonishing,” Gurnett said, “and here we were trying to launch the Vanguard rocket with a satellite that was about the size of a grapefruit and weighed about 3 pounds. It ended up blowing up on the launchpad. It was embarrassing to the whole country, that’s the way I saw it.”

It wasn’t until Feb. 1, 1958 that the US successfully launched the Explorer-1 satellite on a Redstone rocket, carrying Van Allen’s instrument with it.

The cosmic ray detector on board measured the radiation environment in Earth orbit.

“It provided an astonishing result,” Gurnett said, as sometimes the instrument was saturated and it would go into a continuous discharge. They didn’t know what was going on, because sometimes it didn’t seem to be working. But because at some points in Earth’s orbit, the radiation was so high.”

Van Allen theorized that the instrument may have been saturated by very strong radiation from a belt of charged particles trapped in space by Earth's magnetic field. The existence of these radiation belts was confirmed by another U.S. satellite that was launched two months later, and they became known as the Van Allen Belts in honor of their discoverer.

But Gurnett was impressed and enthralled by the success, and he couldn’t resist talking to Van Allen, asking if he could work with him. He started working with Van Allen in the fall of 1958, working in the electronics lab where they assembled the electronics and communications systems for spacecraft.

“U of I was at the center of space research at that time,” he said. “It was a tremendous growth era, and that’s how I got caught up in all this. I would be going to school and also working about 80 hours a week.”

But with all the intense competition between the US and Soviet Union, something interesting and wonderful happened.

“The Soviet Union was very proud of their space program,” Gurnett said “and they reached out to the US, to exchange information about radiation belts and things like that.”

Gurnett recounted how the scientific exchange deepened, with scientists from the two countries attending scientific conferences in each other’s countries. The scientists got to know each other personally, and many of those relationships continue today.

“There were scientific societies formed during that time to facilitate the international exchange of information about space research,” Gurnett said. “That is one of the very few areas between the US and Soviet Union where we had contact with each other, it really was remarkable, and I got to know many Russian scientists as a result of those kinds of exchanges. I think that was very important to get over the war-like attitudes that existed. That really was a unique time.”

Gurnett called it “scientific diplomacy.”

In the intervening 60 years since Sputnik, Gurnett has become one of the leading experts and researchers in radio- and plasma-wave studies. He feels humbled and honored that he has been part of  humanity’s great adventures in space.

“I think the advances of space research is just incredible,” he said. “We’ve flown to all the planets, had extensive investigations of Mars and Venus, found totally unexpected things like at the moons Europa and Enceladus, places where we could seriously look for life. Voyager is a tremendous mission, and we still are getting data from the spacecraft, even though it now takes 19 hours for the radio signal to come back.”

Gurnett, who is now almost 78, said he’s going to retire… someday. But he remains as busy as ever.

“Right now we have as much work going on as we’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m quite optimistic about the future.”