50 years ago today: Sputnik

Sputnik means "traveling companion". Despite the innocuous sounding name, the launch of planet Earth’s first artificial moon, Sputnik 1, by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, changed the world and set in motion events which resulted in the creation of NASA and the race to the Moon. Sputnik 1 was a 184 pound, 22 inch diameter sphere with four whip antennas connected to battery powered transmitters. The transmitters broadcast a continuous "beeping" signal to an astounded earthbound audience for 23 days. A short month later, on November 3, the Soviet Union followed this success by launching a dog into orbit aboard Sputnik 2.

Here is a great piece from

First Contact: Sputnik
To say the least, it was incredible. The news relayed by the voice on the other end of the phone line hit the president of the San Gabriel Valley Radio Club like a blow to the head. Too incredible, Henry Richter hoped, to be true.
Hope was something Richter knew quite well.  It went with the job.  Not only as president of a local ham radio club; although you always hoped the guy on the other side of the world talking to you over the shortwave would have something interesting to say.  No, Richter’s familiarity with hope came as a charter member of the nascent space exploration industry.
"Some of the things that occurred during that period I can recall like they happened yesterday," said 80-year-old Richter. "There was a warning that it was going to happen, but they were so secretive about everything. Why would they change now?"
The warning materialized in the form of a phone call from Richter’s boss, William Pickering, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Pickering was attending meetings in Washington when he heard from a Russian scientist that the Soviets would launch a satellite in the near future.
On October 4 at 10:28 p.m. Moscow time, a brilliant and deafening detonation of smoke and flame illuminated the Soviet Union’s rocket test site near Tyuratam, Kazkhistan, as the 32 nozzles announced the rise of the Russian R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. 295 seconds and 142 miles later, the last of the R-7’s engines shut down for good. Soon after, pneumatic locks were activated, a nosecone fairing separated, and an antenna spike was released. Then, in one final act that signaled the dawn of the space age, a pushrod connected to a bulkhead of the R-7 was activated, shoving a 183-pound beach ball-sized aluminum sphere into the cold, harsh blackness of space. Sputnik had arrived.
"I was in my office in Building 125 at JPL when Dr. Pickering called again," said Richter. "I do not recall exactly what was said but it was a short conversation about Sputnik. I then went to a radio receiver and tried to dial it in."
The Russians were advertising that signals from their satellite could be received on a frequency 20 MHz (megacycles). But all Richter could dial in was static. He immediately suspected the high-tension wires located on a hill above JPL were blocking out the frequency. So the U.S. Navy veteran and Caltech graduate got on the phone, but not to his boss Pickering this time. Instead, he called a friend, and more importantly, a member of the San Gabriel Valley Radio Club.
"Bob Legg had a lot of ingenuity and his own ham setup, and he lived in nearby Temple City," said Richter. "At the time there were no high tension wires near Bob’s home, so he had a clear shot at receiving a signal."
The one thing Legg did not have was an antenna that could pick up transmissions on 20 MHz. So the resourceful Legg looked around his house and found something he thought could do the job:  a wire-mesh mosquito screen on one of his windows. He ran a wire from the screen to his radio, dialed in 20 MHz and listened.
"When Bob called me back and said he’d heard it I sort of went numb," said Richter. "America had been working toward being first in space. The United States had plans on launching a Navy satellite called Vanguard in the coming months. And the Russians had beaten us to it."
As stunned as Richter felt, he knew he still had a job to do. There were many questions to be answered. What could our Cold War enemies do that we could not? What exactly was it that was placed in an orbit above our heads? And most immediate, what was the significance of the continuous string of pulse transmissions radiating out of Sputnik? Richter knew his country’s leaders would need these answers as soon as possible. He also knew that JPL was one of the few places in the nation with personnel who had the knowledge, training and equipment to tell them.
Richter and three others piled JPL’s best radio gear into a trailer, hooked it to a JPL truck and headed as far away from those infernal high-tension wires as they could. An hour later they pulled up to the substation of the Temple City Sheriff’s Department. 
"We went here because they were part of a disaster preparedness group. I knew they had a ham radio station and that they could get clear signals from their location," said Richter, "which was appropriate because this certainly qualified as a disaster in my book. Furthermore, the hams had built a Microlock Station there in anticipation of tracking our American satellite."
Moments after arrival, the JPLers hooked into the station’s power supply, powered up their best receiver, adjusted their antenna and waited. They soon became among the first humans to hear the ‘beep-beep-beep’ that was announcing the birth of the space age.
In the name of national security Richter and company soon took over the basement of the sheriff’s building and set up for the long haul.
"It came in loud and clear," said Richter. "But we did more than listen. We took audio on a reel-to-reel recorder and rolls of strip chart plots of these first signals. We were looking for anything, trying to decipher the significance of what Sputnik was sending out."
Over the next days, weeks and even months, the significance of Sputnik’s signals was fiercely debated. Some scientists stated the space transmissions were simply a carrier signal, intended to assist in the confirmation and tracking of the satellite. Others charged that the Soviets were receiving scientific information from Sputnik in code.
While the debate raged, Richter and his group concentrated on the job at hand. Ensconced in the sheriff’s basement, they did not immediately appreciate the effect the Soviet achievement had on world opinion. As they monitored and documented the satellite’s orbits, the word Sputnik itself, which means "companion" in Russian, quickly became part of the American lexicon. Sputnik was on the front page of just about every major newspaper in America. Within days of their discovery, a wave of VIPs began streaming in to the Temple City Sheriff’s Department to hear for themselves what America’s Cold War enemies had achieved.
"JPL and Caltech staff were dropping by to get an earful and it soon got pretty crowded in that basement," said Richter. "Then the media came, including the three networks. There were so many people crowded into that small room, it got to be too much. So I said the next guy to come down those stairs was getting kicked out. Sure enough, here comes someone and without looking I told him to get the heck out. Turns out, it was the Under-Sheriff Pitchess of Los Angeles County. It was his station and he could have kicked me out, but instead he turned around and left his own basement; more than once he referred to that incident publicly. He was a proud American and knew we were doing important work."
JPL’s important work in the basement of the Temple City Sheriff’s Department would go on for several months. But well before Sputnik gave its final beep 22 days later, Richter was pulled away to work on another important project. On behalf of JPL and his boss Dr. William Pickering, Richter crisscrossed the country, representing the team that would find the perfect instruments to go into a JPL-made satellite.
The first chance to reach the high ground of space came two months and two days later.
At 11:45 AM on December 6, 1957, a nationwide audience watched as the Navy’s Vanguard rocket, the United States first orbital space attempt, exploded on the pad. America’s next shot at the high ground came from JPL and the US Army’s Explorer program.
"Explorer was a crash program," said Richter. "We were determined to get this thing up one way or another and Sputnik merely pushed the button."
On January 31, 1958, a Juno rocket climbed eastward into the night’s sky over Cape Canaveral, Florida. Within minutes, the Juno and its cargo, the JPL-manufactured satellite called Explorer 1, disappeared over the horizon — its fate unknown.
"I was at the Cape that night waiting for our JPL listening post on the West Coast to confirm that they heard signals coming down from the satellite," said Richter.  "We had all these listening posts and the first call I get is from one of my club’s ham radio operators saying they were receiving Explorer 1. My guys were first to hear we made it, that we made it for America."
The 50th Anniversary of JPL’s Explorer 1 mission is January 31, 2008.
Hear beeps from Sputnik and other audio in a podcast at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/multimedia/podcast/sputnik20071002/

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. As we celebrate the advent of space flight, let us also recall the contemporary implications of the Soviets sending objects into LEO, that is, the proof that the era of purely terrestrial warfare had ended and the Cold War (with its threat of instantaneous nuclear holocaust via space vehicles)had begun in earnest.

    Which is why Sputnik scared the hell out of everyone when it was launched.


  2. Robert Eckstein says:

    I was in the 7th grade in Huntsville, Ala. when Sputnik was launched. My father was a missile guidance engineer at Redstone Arsenal and had often said that the Vanguard was overly-sophisticated and too delicate for the job. We were all shocked when the Soviets were successful, but it was largely due to a simpler technology. ( It was said that their German scientists were better than ours ) but at the time, they still used thermionic devices instead of solid-state, and concentrated on V-2 type regeneratively cooled motors and simple controls ( many remoted ).
    Their “old-fashioned” approach forced them to develop missiles with a greater “throw weight” than ours due to the need to loft heavier control systems.
    The elation in Huntsville when our first satellite achieved orbit is difficult to describe.

  3. Being only 34, I obviously wasn’t around in the days of Sputnik. But it is amazing how far man has come given that I have seen the International Space Station moving overhead.
    And to think that now NASA has to track every single piece of space debris in orbit around the Earth. Guess it is a bit more crowded up there now compared to 50 years ago.

  4. leo says:

    Pope Paul VI sent his apostolic blessing into space at some point i dont know what it said

  5. David M.O'Rourke says:

    I just listened to the beeps from Sputnik. Impressive? Yes! But what I realy found to be impressive is the realization that my rather ordinary PC is far more sphisticated than either Sputnik or Explorer.

  6. Legisperitus says:

    As James Thurber once pointed out, Sputnik was the reason compulsory Latin disappeared from American high schools. People got so terrified about the U.S. lagging behind the Communists in math and science that the schools threw out the “useless” old dead language like a bag of moldy tangerines.

    Now we’ve raised entire generations who can’t even diagram a simple sentence in English… and the few scientists we have are, on average, more atheistic than the Soviets.

  7. RBrown says:

    Two months after Sputnik, Vanguard rose four feet on the launch pad, fell, then exploded. One newspaper had a picture of the explosion with the headline: “IKE’S PHUTNIK”

  8. Mary Jane says:

    I remember Sputnik although I was only in 2nd grade at the time. The name appealed to me. Then I started hearing how stupid we were in the USA and how bad we were in math and science and if we didn’t get going, we would be overrun by the Soviets. (My grandmother always took things out to their illogical conclusions. She absolutely “knew” that the Pope would relocate to Washington upon the election of Kennedy.)

    We discarded Latin and began dismantling the arts programs in schools. Over the last 50 years, we’ve redesigned, realigned, reengineered education in every way we can think of. Our math and science scores are still pretty rotten – and our literary, linguistic, and artistic levels have sunk as well. Maybe we should try something else?

  9. RBrown says:


    Not only Sputnik and Explorer but also the computers on the Apollo spacecraft.

  10. RBrown says:

    I think the end of the Latin programs was more a consequence of the introduction of the vernacular liturgy. Latin liturgy also kept the language in the public eye–even for non-Catholics.

  11. RBrown says:

    I think the introduction of the study of other languages, e.g., French, German, and Spanish, also pushed the study of Latin aside. TV brought into the living room the sounds and video of non English speaking cultures.

  12. RBRown: I think my phone has more computing power.

  13. RBrown says:

    I think the semi-conductor is one of the 5 greatest inventions of mankind. Its effects on science, business, and medicine will continue to increase.

    And there are obvious scholarly consequences other than the obvious ability to find occurrences of words in texts. For example, for many years a good part of doctoral research consisted in compiling a good bibliography of relevant books and articles. But now someone can connect to a library data base, enter the subject, and, presto!, instant bibliography.

  14. RBrown says:

    RBRown: I think my phone has more computing power.
    Comment by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

    I take it you don’t have Sprint.

  15. Copernicus says:

    Ah, Sputnik and the Space Age. Now that we know that the universe is about 13.5 billion years old (and our species has existed in its current form only about 0.00001 of that), that it contains approximately 10 to the 21st power (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars like our sun, that many stars have planets like those in our solar system–in short that our world is utterly insignificant and unspecial–can we really continue to believe that all of that unimaginable vastness was created just for us? Since objects outside of our solar system (that is, effectively the entire universe) have virtually no influence on our world, why did God bother? Just because it’s pretty? Father Z is no scientific illiterate—what does he think?

  16. Perhaps the universe is so vast so as to give man some concept in nature of what infinity might be like.

  17. Mitchell Bond says:

    Perhaps, also, [IMHO] it is meant to humble us, for it seems that a parallel exists. As we progress forward in scientific knowledge and technology, it would appear that we begin to value more “ourselves” and our seemingly limitless capacity for innovation. However, in parallel, for all that we learn, the more we uncover the “seemingly” infinite complexity of the human organism, the unsurmountable mysteries of this planet, and the depths of the seemingly infinite universe. Perhaps, as we attain knowledge, the perceivedly limitless intricacy and complexity are meant to humble us. It was pride that led to the knowledge of good and evil, and with each development in the sciences (minus the Queen of the Sciences) which divorces itself from God (or acts etsi deus non daretur) God (in His infinite mercy) places checks to our pride, in ways, such as have been described. That is my thought, but then again, what do I know….nada.

  18. Copernicus says:

    I think it is a mistake to believe that there is anything in the natural world that our minds cannot (will not) ultimately fathom. There is no “infinite” complexity of the human organism, or “unsurmountable” mysteries of this planet, or seemingly “infinite” universe. All of these things are not infinite, merely very very large. Anything finite can be understood, though its size may awe us. We have proven ourselves incredibly clever in fathoming the secrets of nature. The physical sciences can now explain in a coherent and compelling way nearly everything from the depths of the atom (quarks, etc.) to the vastest scales of the cosmos. While there are certainly some very fundamental questions remaining (dark energy, dark matter, the Higgs boson, etc.), given the incredible progress in understanding over the last century, it is not unreasonable to think these “mysteries” will be resolved in the not too distant future. If God made us, he gave us very powerful faculties of reason. I do not believe, nor do I believe the Church teaches, that the natural world was created as a test to see whether our big brains are lured off the right course of “faith”. God did not “plant” dinosaur bones to see whether proud humans would be led astray into believing in evolution, or rock strata so we would be duped into thinking the world is more than 6,000 years old. That would be a wicked God, and I think only fundamentalist crazies can believe that. (I do not mean to name-call or violate Father Z’s rules of discourse—this is a very serious issue.)

    As I see it, there are only two real questions: why are the fundamental laws of physics what they are (if any of them were slightly different, the universe would not exist in the form we know it), and more basically, why is there a universe at all instead of nothing? I think everything else either can, or will be able to, be explained and reduced to the pure science of mathematics. For these two questions, quantum mechanics (the seemingly fantastic but thoroughly verified theory of the very small world of fundamental particles) gives possible explanations, arising from the fundamental randomness of quantum processes. Given enough time, anything that can happen will happen. (Monkeys + typewriters + time = Shakespeare.) God may be offered as the explanation, but such an explanation fundamentally resolves nothing. Why is there God instead of no God? The great scientific achievement we celebrate today reminds us of the incredible power of the scientific method, and must force any thinking person (Christian or otherwise) to address these questions.

  19. Copernicus . . .

    Was a priest.

    Given your skepticism, you should call yourself Galileo.


  20. Publius says:

    Yes he was, but one who had his eyes open. He reached his conclusion based on the evidence of his senses and reason. “On 5 March, 1616, the work of Copernicus was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index ‘until corrected’, and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed. This done, the reading of the book was allowed.” (Catholic Encyclopedia) And we know what happened to Galileo. But they were right and the Church was wrong. Any dogma that sets itself directly against science is bound to fail. We used to attribute all kinds of things–weather, disease, the motions of the heavens–to God, until we understood them. The same may one day be true for the origin of the universe. In any event, Copernicus and Galileo were fathers of the Scientific Revolution. Without them, no Sputnik. And no computers, blogs, Mass videos, Missal pdfs, Father Z’s blackberry. . .

  21. Legisperitus says:


    A dogma of the Faith, if it is a dogma, cannot “fail” or be “against science.” And the Church authorities (though not promulgating a dogma) happened to be right in maintaining that the Copernican theories, at that time, were not certain.

    Galileo took it upon himself to play amateur theologian by drawing tendentious conclusions about passages in the Bible from his astronomical observations, and he was properly censured for that. Let’s have no more of the black legends. Anyone who thinks the history of the Church has been anti-scientific I would refer to “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” by Thomas Woods.

  22. Publius: Father Z’s blackberry. . .

    Fr. Z doesn’t yet have a Blackberry. The donation box is open, however, and he is not against the idea.

  23. Legisperitus: Galileo took it upon himself to play amateur theologian by drawing tendentious conclusions about passages in the Bible from his astronomical observations, and he was properly censured for that.

    Exatcly. And again and again he scratched the eyeballs those who had been his strong supporters.

  24. Copernicus says:

    This has nothing to do with black legend. And I did not mean dogma in the technical Catholic sense. I should have said “belief” or “doctrine”. I think sticking to the party line in this case (I am a party member) of “Copernican theories, at that time, were not certain” and that Galileo was stubborn and abrasive (which he was) is disingenuous and makes us look silly. The Church authorities made a very serious error in interpreting Genesis literally and trying to make the motions of heavenly bodies, which are natural observable phenomena, a subject of doctrine. That “no objection was made to [heliocentrism] being taught as an hypothesis which explained all phenomena in a simpler manner than the Ptolemaic [but] what was objected to was the assertion that Copernicanism was in fact true, ‘which appears to contradict Scripture’” (Catholic Encyclopedia) is ridiculous hairsplitting. The same Encyclopedia says, “In thus acting, it is undeniable that the ecclesiastical authorities committed a grave and deplorable error, and sanctioned an altogether false principle as to the proper use of Scripture.”

    My point is that the increasing completeness of our scientific understanding of nature leaves less and less room for the direct action of God in the physical universe, and, perhaps more importantly, our increasing understanding of human evolution and genetics and of the structure and function of the brain leave less and less room for free will and therefore a rational soul. Indeed, the randomness inherent in quantum mechanics (which, again, is exceedingly well verified experimentally) may in fact make free will impossible in any meaningful sense. It may also explain the origin of our seemingly anthopo-tuned universe, in fact implying that there are an infinite number of discreet universes with all possible physical laws, and the one we find ourselves in just happens to be suited for our kind of life. These are very serious subjects hotly debated in science right now, and Christians would be well advised do be aware of the debate and its implications.

  25. Copernicus says:

    Corrections: “Anthropo-tuned”; “advised to be aware”. Obviously I need to “think before posting” more thoroughly. Sorry.

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