Sputnik

The Scientific Legacy of Sputnik


Sputnik's launch stunned the world and changed it, too. It heralded in dramatic fashion a new "space age," created an identity crisis in the
United States, led to the creation of NASA and began a flurried race between the world's two superpowers to place a human on the moon. 

Sputnik touched all walks of life. For politicians, its launch provided a new and powerful way to stir up patriotism. Winning the space race was not only a matter of national security, they said, but of national pride. 

 

For engineers, the space age represented a new set of daunting technological hurdles to be overcome. The engineers were the group tasked with inventing machines capable of escaping Earth's gravity and reaching the moon, as well as ways to keep humans alive in space and to communicate with them from the ground. 

 

For people of a military mindset, Sputnik represented an awesome and frightening new way of waging war. The same technology needed to loft a satellite into space could also be adapted to hurl a nuclear warhead at your enemies from half a world away.  

 

For environmentalists, the photographs of our planet in full that came out of the space age were a powerful propaganda tool. The "Blue Marble" image taken by the crew of Apollo 17 spoke volumes about Earth's fragility and the interconnectedness of life and humanity. 

 

But all of these things would come later. Arguably the first people to fully grasp Sputnik's significance and to exploit its technology were scientists for whom the beeping metal ball represented a radical new way of studying our planet and the universe.  

 

Scientists made their first major discovery of the space age a mere three months after Sputnik's launch. American scientist James Van Allen convinced engineers to strap a Geiger counter his team had designed to the first American satellite, Explorer 1, launched on January 31, 1958. The experiment confirmed the existence of Earth's magnetic field by detecting a doughnut-shaped region of high- energy particles encircling the planet. Scientists now know Earth has two such "Van Allen Belts" which can be hazardous to both satellites and astronauts. 

 

For many scientists, Sputnik's greatest legacy is the space observatories such as Hubble that it paved the way for. 

Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7) www.beyondgenes.com

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