Sputnik launched the technology revolution
washington -- With a series of small beeps from a spiky globe 50 years ago, the world shrank and humanity’s view of Earth and the cosmos expanded.
Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched by the Soviets and circled the globe Oct. 4, 1957. The Space Age was born, and changes to everyday life followed. Now, we take those changes for granted.
What we see on television, how we communicate with one other, and how we pay for what we buy all have changed since the birth of satellites.
Communications satellites helped bring wars and celebrations from thousands of miles away into our living rooms. When we go outside, weather satellites show us whether we need to carry an umbrella or flee a hurricane. And global positioning system satellites keep us from getting lost on unfamiliar streets.
Sputnik gave birth to more than mere technology. The threat of Soviet-dominated space spurred the U.S. government to increase tenfold the money spent on science, education and research. Satellite pictures of Earth inspired an embryonic environmental movement.
Spy and communications satellites have also kept the world at relative peace, experts say. Late last month, scientists used commercial satellite images to document human rights violations in Myanmar.
When Sputnik was launched, the public thought a space future would consist of gigantic space stations and colonies on the moon and other planets. The fear was that warfare in space would rain down on Earth.
“The reality is that the things we expected did not come to pass, and the things that we did not fathom changed our lives in so many ways that we cannot even envision a life that’s different at this point,” said Roger D. Launius, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
America got a taste of that in May 1998 when one communications satellite malfunctioned. More than 30 million pagers went silent, credit card payment approvals didn’t work and National Public Radio and CNN’s Airport Television Network went off the air in some places.
“The civilization we live in today is as different from the one that we lived in the mid-1950s as the mid-1950s were from the American Revolution,” said Howard McCurdy, an American University professor of public policy. “It’s hard to imagine these things happening without space. I guess I could have a computer, but I wouldn’t be able to get on the Internet.”
All thanks to a 184-pound metal ball with spikes shot into space by a country that no longer exists.
Because Sputnik was launched by a centralized communist government, many people feared that space would help totalitarianism, said Georgia Tech University history professor Steven Usselman. However, he said, satellites “clearly undermined state authority, particularly national authority. It’s taken us in exactly the opposite direction.”
As satellites went commercial, they spurred financial markets and opened up information to people across the globe -- which is not what centralized governments want, Usselman said.
Spy satellites also enabled countries to keep an eye on their enemies.
“Except for crazy guys in airplanes, nobody can pull off a sneak attack,” McCurdy said. “I think it made the world much less dangerous than it was in 1956.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 said that it was thanks to satellites that “we know how many missiles the enemy has and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were doing things we didn’t need to do. We were building things we didn’t need to build. We were harboring fears we didn’t need to harbor.”
Weather satellites now give people an accurate view of threats from nature, as well as vastly improved everyday forecasts, said Keith Seitter of the American Meteorological Society. They save lives when hurricanes approach, giving days of notice instead of hours. “It’s very hard to be surprised these days with the kind of data we have available with satellites,” he said. “Certainly 50 years ago that wasn’t the case.”
In television, satellite communications let upstart networks like HBO, CNN and ESPN develop and feed cable systems via satellite. That brought world events live to people around the globe. But it also allowed people to isolate themselves with niche channels, Usselman said.
W. Henry Lambright, a professor at Syracuse University, said satellites have had practical benefits, but “the more important benefits are looking at Earth as a whole and looking outward at Earth in the cosmos.”
The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and others have given people views of the universe that not only go trillions of miles away, but billions of years back in time.
“The launch of Sputnik actually triggered heightened interest among the American people, not only in space, but in science, mathematics and education,” said White House science advisor John H. Marburger III. “It also opened up people’s eyes to the possibility that space could actually be used for something.”
On the Net:
Hear the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik that NASA’s history office has saved: