Sunday, October 3, 2010

The day the space age dawned.

              On the evening of October 4,1957, what was then the Soviet Embassy in Washington had hosted a cocktail party as part of the celebrations of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). It was attended by a number of scientists, diplomats and mediapersons.

              As the party was in in progress, a top correspondent of the The New York Times, who was one of the invitees, received an urgent telephone call from his office saying that the Soviet Union had launched the world's first artificial satellite into orbit a while ago. and it was circling the earth. It was called Sputnik. It was flying at a speed of 29,000 kms per hour taking 96.2 minutes to complete an orbit. During its flight it emitted radio signals which could be captured by even amateur radio operators. The correspondent put down the receiver of the telephone and wasted no time in breaking the news to the guests. What was the news?  the Soviet Union had put into orbit an artificial satellite successfully, beating the US in the emerging space race.

           A sense of shock instantly enveloped the room where the party was taking place because the Americans felt humiliated that their so called technology superiority had been challenged by none other than their arch rival--the Soviet Union. What was worse, the Americans were humiliated in the premises of the Soviet Embassy!

          At Huntsville, Alabama where another party was being hosted by the legendary rocket genius, Wernher Von Braun, an official informed Von Braun about the Sputnik launch. Von Braun felt frustrated because he had warned the US authorities that the Soviets were ``planning something'' and he, therefore, be allowed to design a rocket which will launch a satellite beating the Soviets.  But his repeated warnings remained unheeded, and consequently the US suffered a humiliating defeat, atleast in the first round of the global space race.

         The launch of the 83.6 kg Sputnik by the R-7 rocket on the night (Baikonour time) of October 4,1957, marked the beginning of the global space age, It not only triggered a fierce competition between the US and the Soviet Union, but in the years that followed this space race spread to other parts of the world too, notably in the Asian region. Sputnik, therefore,was not just a technological triumph, but had political significance too. Apart from signifying the superiority of communism over capitalism, it has set off a space race among three Asian giants---India, China and Japan, especially between the first two.

         Though Isro does not agree, who can deny that both India and China are trying to outdo each other in technologically while flying to the moon?  Chandrayaan-1 successfully crash landed the Moon Impact Probe, while Chang'e-2, China's second mission to the moon launched on October 1, 2010, will zoom down just 15 kms above the lunar surface to image the moon. Keeping in view the Sino-Pak nuclear ties, where is the guarantee that China is not aiding Pakistan in its space programme too? Let India not be shocked if a Pak official receives him with a Chinese meal when an Indian sets foot on the surface of the moon !!!!!!

         The story of this sphere---Sputnik--goes back to the day when its chief designer, another legendary rocket genius, Sergei Korolev, informed the the former Soviet defence minister, Dmitry Ustinov, that an earth orbiting satellite should be launched because a similar project was under the serious consideration of other countries, especially the US. His proposal has to be viewed in the context of US President, Dwight Eisenhower, announcing on July 29, 1955, that the US would launch a satellite during the IGY.

          A week after Eisenhower's declaration, the Soviet Union on August 8,1955, ``approved the idea of  launching an artificial satellite.'' Unlike the Americans, the Russians went into a fast and mission mode resulting in the launch of Sputnik on October 4,1957, defeating the Americans. On hearing about the launch, the Americans pressed the panic button and went into an over drive to surpass the Soviets. Their initial attempts to launch a satellite flopped in full view of the world! They suffered one defeat after another until on January 31,1958, when they successfully placed in orbit Explorer-1 thanks to Wernher Von Braun.

         Over the years Sputnik became a household name. For instance its popularity can be gauged by the fact that a building next to where I stay in Breach Candy in Mumbai is called Sputnik where my grandparents stayed for sometime. It was during his stay in Sputnik that my grandfather, S.A.Venkataraman, started a well informed and well read column in The Economic Times called Sputnik.

        The launch of Sputnik has produced several space experts, analysts and spacebuffs like me! What would have happened to us or where would we have gone if Korolev had not thought of Sputnik. A big thank you to Korolev.

              Before it burned up on January 4,1958, it completed a total of 1440 orbits.

              Who will ever forget Sputnik? No one.




1 comment:

  1. All these events are beautifully reflected in BBC Space Race Documentary series.. A must watch for all space enthusiastic
    No one can forget Sputnik and great Korolev