Sputnik was just a rocket booster!

October 9, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

I saw that Google changed its logo last week as a hat tip to the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik in 1957. I just finished reading a lot of articles on the historical and cultural significance of Sputnik, so with all the celebration and reflecting going on, how could I not do a post on Sputnik!

Now, let me start off by saying I wasn’t around when Sputnik was flung into space but I did grow up during the time when the Cold War was still cold. When the Russians were still a suspicious bunch of people (despite my Russian ancestry) and when the United States was all mom and apple pie and hadn’t tainted itself yet with Iraq. I vaguely remember being a bit worried that one of my relatives spoke Russian – despite living in Australia I imagined the CIA popping out of unmarked vehicles and spiriting her away. Or worse: maybe she was really a Russian spy. After all, Australia went through that whole 1954 Petrov Affair business – our very own Cold War spy drama. My parents told me they watched the drama unfolding at Sydney airport on some grainy black and white TV of the 1950s. Poor Evdokia Petrov was hauled onto the aircraft going back to the USSR by Soviet agents, then hauled off again in Darwin by police. High drama: full of Soviet agents rough-handling a woman; Petrov with his secret documents about Soviet espionage in Australia (were we that interesting to the USSR?); Prime Minister Menzies imploring us to look for “reds under beds”.

Sounds like 1950s and 1960s Sydney might have been a pretty exciting place: lots of talk about Soviet spy rings; schools running drills on how to evacuate in the event of a nuclear attack; people building bomb shelters (my father once showed me abandoned plans he had for building one in our suburban backyard – shame, would have been a great play area for me!). And of course there were the great spy movies of the era pitting Soviet evil against Western freedom.

I remember thinking of the USSR as probably quite an exciting place too – full of whizz bang secret technology; Soviet agents who had been trained meticulously since birth to speak “American” and insinuate themselves into American society as sleeper agents. I had images of Soviet agents lurking in shadows with fedora hats spying on diplomats and politicians. No doubt that happened, but when I eventually went to the USSR before it collapsed and met a relative, I saw that the excitement I had imagined was the stuff of TV. What they really faced was food shortages, Soviets spying on Soviets, people disappearing, drab, depressing Stalinist apartments with foyers that smelled of urine; suspicious glances at anyone who spoke Russian with a foreign accent.

But the launch of Sputnik in 1957 left the USA in the dust. Anyone who’s read Deborah Cadbury’s great book, The Space Race, would be well aware that during the 1950s the USSR and USA vied for supremacy in conquering space and that the Soviets won the battle and demonstrated the superiority of Communism over over-indulgent, hamburger-eating, democracy-loving Americans.

I remember my father telling me that there was a bit of hysteria when the news broke of Sputnik’s launch. People rushed out to view the night sky, waiting to see a winking Sputnik fly over, no doubt with spy technology zooming down on innocent Westerners. Culturally, Sputnik had an enormous influence on the 1950s and 1960s. It was a great time for space age movies and TV series: Star Trek, The Jetsons, Lost in Space, Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Invaders, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Architecture, interior design and furniture proudly showed off sleek futuristic lines or UFO shapes:

And then you had visions of future transport as seen in this 1958 clip entitled Magic Highway USA from Daily Motion – what a classic!

Science suddenly mattered but in the context of politics. The Americans swung into action heeding President Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. But would it have all been different if the truth had been known…..that Sputnik wasn’t a high-tech artificial satellite and the product of a cunning Soviet strategy to outwit the Americans? Sputnik was…

….the second stage of its booster rocket (Quelle Horreur!) that had been flung into space by the efforts of one man, Boris Chertok, one of the founders of the Soviet space programme. Chertok is 95 years old now and has been reflecting on the Sputnik era. He tells us that Sputnik wasn’t part of a strategy to conquer space. Nope: it was the product of a frantic effort to develop a rocket capable of striking the USA with a hydrogen bomb (this would really have been Quelle Horreur!). The humongous R-7 thruster rocket programme was delayed, so Chertok seized the opportunity to launch Sputnik as the Americans were planning to launch a satellite in 1958 as part of the International Geophysical Year. He was nearly thwarted as the military wanted to keep the R-7 to wipe out the Yanks with a bomb. But Chertok and his team sketched a plan for a primitive orbiter and called it “Prosteishiy Sputnik” or the Simplest Satellite (not very exotic!).

The satellite was built in less than 3 months, weighed 184 pounds and was basically a polished aluminium alloy basketball-sized sphere with a couple of pathetic radio transmitters and four whisker-like antennas. It was launched on October 4, 1957. Pravda failed to mention that the light circling the Earth was actually the spent booster rocket’s second stage, which was in roughly the same orbit as Sputnik. Sputnik itself was invisible to the naked eye, so all those people rushing outside gazing in awe as the space age was ushered in were really looking at a tired old booster rocket. You can read about Chertok and the true story of Sputnik here on CNN.com.

I don’t know: sort of takes the glamour and thrill out of the whole space race when you know the truth! We don’t blink an eye now when NASA talks about a mission to Mars – space exploration is perhaps seen as a frivolous activity (not to me though) when we live in a society more obsessed with Self than What’s Out There. I have memories of living in a world shared with the Soviet Union, the KGB and cosmonauts. I guess anyone born after 1985, when Gorbechev started uttering the words glasnost and perestroika and the USSR finally teetered off the edge in 1991, will never know what it’s like to live through a Cold War with the subliminal fear of nuclear annihilation or whether Soviet spies are running amok. Now the Russians are just like the rest of the world – obsessed with wealth and material goods. And instead of space-age inspired toys, furniture, cars and architecture, we have designer labels that all tend to look the same. Mmmmm….maybe the 50s and 60s weren’t THAT bad!

And for those of us interested in Sputnik and the space race, The Library of Congress, Science Reference Section has a fab resource list for further reading.  Check it out here.

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Entry filed under: History, Reflections, Space.

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