The first artificial satellite, launched 60 years ago, set us on the path to an interconnected worldby Paul Wallace / September 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
Artist’s impression of Sputnik 1 in orbit. ©Gregory R Todd For Philip Larkin, sex began in 1963. Another poet might have singled out 1957 though for a different reason. For that was when Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched, changing forever the way we see ourselves and setting the path towards our high-tech, interconnected world, whose bright promise so often has a dark underside. That moment, 60 years ago on October 4th, still remains startlingly relevant. At the time, the launch was seen through the all-defining lens of the Cold War. That the Soviet Union had stolen a technological march on America was deemed a national disaster, a post-war Pearl Harbour. The mood worsened as an American launch later that year failed ignominiously when the rocket blew up on the launchpad. By contrast the Russians had already scored a second success (though not for dog-lovers) by putting into orbit a much bigger satellite carrying Laika, an unfortunately doomed animal astronaut. The evident prowess of Soviet rocket technology sparked concern about a “missile gap,” which turned out to be illusory but was exploited by John F Kennedy in his campaign to win the 1960 presidential election. The Russians had certainly pulled off an impressive coup by beating the Americans to the first satellite launch even though Sputnik—a metal sphere the size of a small gym ball with a diameter of less than two feet and weighing 184 pounds (84 kilograms)—did no more than emit a beeping radio signal. Despite this triumph the Soviet Union remained technologically and economically behind the Americans. Yet the unwarranted American alarm had far-reaching consequences. Within a year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) had been set up and the space race was under way. In little more than a decade, America had succeeded in accomplishing the first lunar landing, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon—a compelling counterblow in the rivalry for technological prestige between the two superpowers. As well as triggering the space race, Sputnik and the satellites that followed it have shaped the modern world in countless ways, both for ill and for good. Surveillance from space has transformed the military, from reconnaissance of defence installations and forces to the global-positioning system. But if satellites have created new ways of combat, they have also brought peoples together by enhancing communications, allowing live television transmissions for example to be bounced from one part of the world to another. The global-positioning system is used in satnav devices in vehicles or when navigating journeys with smartphones. Indeed, there is a direct link between the space race set off by Sputnik and the internet. The Pentagon set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa, later renamed Darpa), one of whose ventures was linking computers together through Arpanet—a precursor to the modern internet. America’s response to Sputnik highlighted the role of the state in spurring technological breakthroughs in advanced economies already at the frontier of productivity. One of Trump’s main rallying cries has been to rebuild America’s physical infrastructure. But as productivity growth falters, an even more pressing priority than renewing highways is investing in the pure sciences and supporting innovation. Strikingly, America responded to the perceived Sputnik crisis by swiftly increasing funding for education, especially scientific and technical. Perhaps most important of all, eyes in the sky have changed the way we see ourselves. Five centuries ago the voyages of discovery created a new perspective for Europeans. John Donne, another poet with sex on his mind, celebrated his mistress as his “new-found-land.” Our discovery is to see ourselves from space. The hauntingly beautiful images of Earth have created a new ecological awareness of our collective fate, though as ever, we have contrived to despoil another virgin territory, with half a million pieces of orbiting debris according to Nasa. Historian Daniel Boorstin later wrote of the Sputnik launch: “Never before had so small and so harmless an object created such consternation.” That event 60 years ago, which led some contemporaries to distinguish between pre- and post-Sputnik times, continues to define today’s world.