Looking To The Sky

God gave us memories that we might have roses in December. ~J.M. Barrie

Satellites We New And Amazing


The year was 1957 and Sputnik was a surprise ... to everybody.  In retrospect, it was not a big deal but it was the first man-made orbiting device and a signal that the US had better get serious about the space race!

The Russians launched the first artificial satellite from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan which demonstrated the technological superiority of Communism*. They equipped the Sputnik with transmitters to broadcast on frequencies at 20 and 40 MHz so everyone will know it's up there.

*Communism is not a technology but it was a propaganda victory for the Soviets and a real pain for the Americans .

Sputnik 1, launched on October 4, 1957, was designed to send radio signals to Earth and determine the density of the upper atmosphere. However, it only transmitted signals to Earth for a short time after launch. Its orbit decayed and it fell to Earth on January 4, 1958.

It Was A Wakeup Call


The United States was shocked. Senator Lyndon Johnson said the Russians have jumped way ahead of us in the conquest of space.

"Soon, they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses!*" [*this statement is from a movie that dramatized the emotional impact of that day].

Everyone in the United States were constantly reminded that the Russians were well on the way in conquering space and newspaper headlines, "REDS ORBIT ARTIFICIAL MOON" and "SOVIET SATELLITE CIRCLES GLOBE EVERY 90 MINUTES".


Reactions by Americans:

  • Many people did not know how to think of a satellite in orbit. It was too mysterious for them, "What is a 184 pound object in orbit?" "Are they looking down at us?"

  • Engineering colleges were flooded with new students the following quarter. It was as if everyone was "joining the army" to take on the Russians in the New Frontier.

  • Everyone on Johnston Island in the Pacific were issued sidearms to carry at all times. Johnston Island is so small it only has room for a runway and a hanger for airplanes.

  • Students at Case Institute immediately became "Rocket Scientists" and stayed up many late nights discussing various methods of space travel.

  • Jim Dawsons, science writer for the Star Tribune, wrote about how his third grade teacher was very nervous at the time. His school at Omaha, Neb., was just a few miles from the Air Force's Strategic Air Command headquarters. A fleet of F-100 fighters appeared in the sky coming right for the school. "MiGs!" the teacher shrieked. "MiGs!" She ran, hysterical, from the classroom, convinced they were about to be nuked by Russian fighter jets. The kids, mostly Air Force brats, ran to the windows to admire the F-100s, the coolest jet of its day.

  • Politicians and editorialists began attacking the U.S. educational system for having fallen behind Soviet schools in training people in the sciences and other fields.

  • Former President Harry Truman was moved to comment, charging the "persecution" of prominent U.S. scientists by Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the early 1950s had been a setback to the nation's development of satellites and rockets.

  • Tom A. posted on the newsgroup about an American entrepreneur had a "Sputnik" gumball for sale at the local candy store. It was blue and had protrusions sticking out of it to simulate Sputnik's antenna, and it was delicious.

Our Reaction Was Swift

President Dwight Eisenhower was surprised but not as anxious as everyone else. He had photographs of the Russian launch facilities that were obtained from U2 flights over Soviet territory the United States was conducting since 1956. So immediately after the Sputnik launch President Eisenhower did not see it as an immediate military threat and he tried to lessen the political impact. But Eisenhower could not disclose intelligence gathered by the U2 flights, and he was not successful in damping the political impact. Thus the "Missile Gap" argument was born.

The Sputnik launch occurred back in the days when the Pentium had vacuum tubes, and during this period the Americans and the Russians regarded each other as enemies (also known as the "Cold War"). They built massive armies, navies, and air forces and were prepared to engage in global war at a moments notice. American military manuals regarded the Russians as "The Threat," and Soviet government went as far as training many non-military citizens on use of small arms to prepare for an invasion from "The Imperialists."

The United States tried to gain a foothold on the High Ground with the satellite Vanguard but it exploded on the launch pad and everyone laughed at the U.S. silly; some called it the "Kaputnik." And it wasn't as bad as just a launch failure, the vanguard satellite only the size of a grapefruit. The Sputnik 1 was 184 pounds and the Russians launched the previous month Sputnik 2 which was 1100 pounds and carried a live dog, Laika. There were lots of finger pointing, yelling, but also some had said that Sputnik didn't pose an immediate military threat. Although the same vehicle that can put a satellite into orbit can also vault a nuclear bomb across continents, nobody had solved the problem of shielding a satellite, or a warhead, during atmosphere re-entry. But it was that blasted "beep, beep, beep" every 90 minutes reminding the U.S., "Razzzzzz, we beat you!"

I was in the 8th grade and interested in science.  Satellites were a new concept. . . .almost everybody I knew was spending long evenings outside looking up.  In Los Angeles, we had fairly clear skies.  Sure enough, there it was streaking overhead.

We Caught Up Quickly

Soon we caught up with the Russians and Space was the most popular topic in the next several years!

Satellites    Satellites

The background music playing is called TELSTAR.  It was from a January 1963 album called "TELSTAR And he Lonely Bull".... and was based upon the Telstar Satellite.  Oh.. In 1964, they released another album called :Ventures in Space" and it had several songs including War of The Satellites!  

The first commercial spacecraft built by Bell Telephone Laboratories, and launched on the 10th July 1962 on a Thor Delta launcher. A picture shows the satellite was spherical in shape, with 3600 solar cells. It carried an active broadband 6.39/4.17GHz transponder, offering 600 voice channels and one TV channel. Telemetry was PCM/FM/Am at 136MHz.

I can again remember the music playing at 6:00 am in the morning.... I was on my way to class in the local college... driving down Venice Blvd.  I stopped to see the satellite as it was overhead!

Telstar was the first telecommunications satellite. The construction of huge ground tracking stations on both sides of the Atlantic enabled its weak signals to be heard. There were historic telephone conversations via satellite with Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, Senator Everett M. Dirksen and members of AT&T. President John F. Kennedy held the first televised press conference via satellite with European television viewers.

Those were the days!

But we were on our way!