Sputnik: The Beep Heard Round the World, The Birth of the Space Age

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Sputnik: The Beep Heard Round the World, The Birth of the Space Age
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Narrator: The beep heard round the world: The birth of the space age. I'm Jane Platt with a podcast from JPL-- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. October 4, 1957.

Audio of newsreel: Today a new moon is in the sky, a 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket. You are hearing the actual signals transmitted by the Earth-circling satellite. One of the great scientific feats of the age.

Narrator: With those faint beeps from that metal sphere called Sputnik, the Soviet Union was the first country ever to launch a satellite into space, much to the chagrin of Americans. JPL veteran John Casani was here at work during that life-changing moment.

Casani: That sort of shook us all pretty much, I mean I can remember going out in the back parking lot in back of one of the buildings over here in the early evening, and we could see the doggone thing flying overheard. And that was really quite an experience to know that the Russians had done it and we hadn't.

Baggett: For the people in the know, it really wasn't a shock, but for the general populace, it was in the United States particularly, it was our technological Pearl Harbor.

Narrator: Blaine Baggett of JPL has produced an in-depth documentary about Sputnik and America's successful response to it - the Explorer satellite developed by JPL. To understand why Sputnik was so disturbing to Americans, you have to consider the timing. 1957, a dozen years after the U.S. and its allies defeated Germany and the other Axis countries during World War Two. A quieter, more insidious battle was looming with the Soviet Union - the Cold War.

Baggett: You have the fact that even though World War Two is over, our former ally becomes our adversary, in the Soviet Union.

Narrator: And then, as if the first Soviet Sputnik wasn't bad enough...

Baggett: Less than a month later Sputnik 2 goes up. Sputnik 2 launches in essence, an 1,100 lb satellite. This is enormous, and it has a dog on board. But this has enormous military implications, because if they can lob that large a satellite into space, they can lob a nuclear weapon toward the United States.

McDougall: To have the communists lead in technology? To pioneer a new frontier of infinite size? In a sense to capture the future? The symbolism was horrifying. What did this mean? That the future belongs to communism?

Narrator: That's historian Walter McDougall. Part of the answer to those ominous questions lay with a strange post-war alliance. Amid some controversy, at the end of the war, the U.S. had imported such top German scientists as Werner von Braun, who had developed the German V-2 rockets that had rained down on Europe. The U.S. Army linked the German scientists with JPL scientists to develop future rockets. These two groups also wanted to launch satellites. U.S President Dwight Eisenhower was interested in satellites, too, but for a different reason: peering inside the Soviet Union. Blaine Baggett.

Baggett: There's a scientific effort called the International Geophysical Year that says we want to put up a satellite and for science purposes. That gives Eisenhower the ability to say, aha, we can put up a satellite, it will not be seen as hostile to go over another person's, another country's territory. And therefore we'll be in a position then to put up our reconnaissance satellite.

Narrator: Both the U.S. and Soviet Union announced they would launch satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year. To the surprise of the U.S. Army, Eisenhower tapped the Navy to develop a test satellite, called Vanguard. But as a response to Sputnik, it was a flop - literally, collapsing and erupting in flames just seconds after launch. Meanwhile, JPL and the Army were ready to launch their satellite, to be called Explorer. And now they were chomping at the bit.

Baggett: The Army was in a position where, by Army I mean JPL and von Braun's Huntsville team, the Army could have put up a satellite easily one year before Sputnik. They were all ready to go. In fact, the White House was so concerned that they would as renegades go ahead and do it, quote, accidentally -- oops, we just happened to put a satellite up -- that they ordered the Army to put sandbags in the upper stage.

Narrator: That was one year before Sputnik launched. But with Sputnik up and running, and the Navy's Vanguard program in shambles, JPL and the Army were given 90 days to get their satellite ready for launch.

Audio from Army documentary: 90 days to put a satellite into orbit, a crash program, an emergency.

Narrator: Henry Richter of JPL played a key role in determining what instruments would fly on Explorer.

Richter: We were brand new at it, we didn't really know much of what we were doing, and so we gave it our best shot, and we developed the Explorer satellite from scratch, we had no prior engineering to go by.

Narrator: January 31, 1958.

Audio of Explorer launch: Five, four, three, two, one, by command, by command.

Narrator: Explorer 1 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Henry Richter remembers eight nail-biting minutes.

Richter: We knew what time we launched it, about 10:30 in the evening, and we knew what time it was supposed to show up on the West Coast, and nothing and nothing, and we waited eight minutes, and then finally my group of radio hams in Temple City were the first to pick it up, confirmed that it was in orbit.

Narrator: And so Americans were in the space race. Emotions ran high when the key players in the Explorer program walked into a 2 a.m. news conference at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

Baggett: And they think they're going to be walking into a press conference that's empty, just a ghost town. And it's packed with reporters with tears streaming in their eyes, they're so grateful for the fact that the United States is actually into space.

Narrator: And Explorer 1 beamed back the first-ever science from space, by discovering the Van Allen radiation belts around Earth. Later that year, NASA was formed as a civilian space agency. And in the decades since then, humans have gone to the moon, robotic spacecraft have ventured to all the planets in our solar system and are peering into the far reaches of our universe, as the dream and the drama of space continue.

More information is online at www.nasa.gov/explorer. Thanks for listening to this podcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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