Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Happy Anniversary, comrade!

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch. That's right, way back on October 4, 1957 Russia stunned the world by getting a tiny satellite into space before the U.S. could, thereby launching the space race that would consume the two countries for almost two decades thereafter, spurred on in no small part by the rivalry that was the Cold War.

The Sputnik (which is Russian for "fellow traveler") was about the size of a beach ball and weighed 184 pounds. It was filled with nitrogen (to control temperature), storage batteries, radio transmitters and various relaying instruments. Plus, it looked cool. And its launch really shook up our country, to say the least. After WW II and the period of manufacturing-based growth that followed, we had assumed the we were the technological 800-lb gorilla in the room. Then all of a sudden, someone we had viewed as a second-rate power bested us. That freaked people out, as did the military possibilities of having an orbiting eye in the sky above us. People were literally walking down the street and looking fearfully up at the sky after it's launch. Four months later, our first satellite, the Explorer 1, was launched in response.

But Russia didn't stop there. Swelled with national pride and emboldened by their embarrassment of us, they pressed their advantage and also got a man into space before us. Yuri Gagarin entered orbit in the Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, where he remained for 108 minutes. 23 days later we responded, and Alan Shephard entered sub-orbital space for the U.S., followed by John Glenn, who completed 3 orbits around earth on February 20, 1962.

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and collector of colorful medals

The Russians also carried out the first spacewalk, beating us to the punch on March 18, 1965. By then, sick of playing second fiddle, we put the pedal to metal, so to speak. Although unmanned Soviet probes had reached the moon before any of our craft, we got a person there first, with Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to set foot on said moon on July 21, 1969.

As you may have gathered, the U.S/ Russian space race is a subject of some interest to me. It's a nice mix of history, science, hubris, paranoia and ego. It's got it all! I could go on and on, but interested parties should just go to their public library, were they will find many interesting and lavishly-illustrated books on the subject.

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