Sputnik and the Future of Space Exploration

The Science Show | 13 October 2007

Wilson da Silva traces the history of Sputnik and argues going into space may be one of the best things we can do to save our world and ourselves.


Robyn Williams: Last week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of another form of transport; going into space. You might find all that quaint, but at the time it was truly sensational, as science journalist Tim Radford recalls.

Tim Radford: It was probably the beginning of the most exciting 10 or 15 years I can remember. There was something very special about the Space Age which people now don’t quite understand because to them it’s normal. They don’t actually appreciate what an astounding thing it was and how unlikely it seemed, even on October 3rd 1957, and for that matter how improbable it seemed on October 5th. It was just a very odd thing to cope with.

Robyn Williams: Tim Radford, a New Zealander actually. Last week we had Jonathan Nally give one point of view of the anniversary. This week, by contrast, a Brazilian who is more positive about humans in space than Jonathan Nally was, mainly because he’s going to be one soon, Wilson da Silva, the editor of Cosmos, with a story of drunks, crashes and our future in space.

Wilson da Silva: It’s hard for us to imagine the world 50 years ago before the birth of the Space Age. There were no satellites, so it took hours to connect a phone call to London and it cost a fortune. Cyclones hit towns without warning, there was no GPS to help you navigate, and newsreels showed us world developments weeks after they’d occurred. It was also a time of superpower tension. The Soviet Union had formed the Warsaw Pact, detonated a hydrogen bomb and sent tanks into Hungary. The US meanwhile helped overthrow governments in Iran and Guatemala for being too pro-Soviet, while US senator Joe McCarthy was conducting a witch hunt for a supposed communist conspiracy in Washington.

At the time, both the US and the USSR had bombers in the air laden with nuclear weapons on rotating missions, just waiting to instantly retaliate. The US Strategic Air Command operated a fleet of more than 3,000 planes, averaging 430 aerial refuelings a day. So when the United Nations designated July 1957 as the start of the International Geophysical Year and suggested a satellite be placed into Earth orbit, President Eisenhower committed the US publicly to doing so by the middle of 1958. Hearing this, so did the Soviets, secretly. This too became part of their rivalry, and had it not been for a collision with a tree by a vodka-sodden driver on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia might never have been the first with Sputnik 50 years ago. History does not record the driver’s name.

It was 1957, and the Soviet Union’s brilliant but secretive rocket genius, Sergey Korolyov, was responsible for building ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hurl atomic warheads at the United States. But both he and his American counterpart, Wernher von Braun, really just wanted to explore space. Both were hampered by a military uninterested or openly hostile to their cause.

The White House awarded the honour of the first American satellite to the US Navy, even though von Braun’s team had, by September 1956, set a record by launching a Jupiter C rocket more than 1,000 km high and a downrange distance of 5,300 km. In fact, von Braun could have put a satellite into orbit then and there, but he was ordered to fill the upper stage with sand ballast instead. There would be no ‘accidental satellites’, he was warned, the US Navy was developing a rocket and would launch a satellite soon. Korolyov, reading of von Braun’s flight, suspected he had actually tried to launch a satellite but failed.

Meanwhile delays plagued the Russian satellite, known as ‘Object D’. Weighing more than 1,000 kg, it would carry up to 300 kg of instruments, and was being built by a super-secret research institute outside of Moscow. To Korolyov fell the trickiest part; launching it. But he was already developing the perfect vehicle, the R-7, what became the world’s first ICBM. A two-stage rocket 34 metres long and weighing 280 tonnes, it could deliver a payload up to 8,800 km away, with an accuracy of around 5 km.

To his frustration though, the Red Army restricted all non-military work. It took a visit by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to the rocket site in 1956 for Korolyov, while showing off the R-7, to press for a satellite. Displaying a model, he described a satellite as the perfect Soviet spy, flying around the world and taking photos of US installations. ‘Would the satellite interfere with the ICBM work?’ Khrushchev asked. ‘No,’ assured Korolyov. ‘If the main task does not suffer, then do it,’ Krushchev said.

Development of the R-7 proceeded fast, with three test launches between May and August 1957 establishing a new distance record. Finally, the rocket was ready. But work on ‘Object D’-meant to be the first Soviet satellite-was repeatedly delayed. So Korolyov ordered it, ready or not, delivered to his launch site immediately. That’s where our driver comes in. The factory in Podlipki, glad to be rid of the bulky and troublesome package, assigned a truck driver to deliver it to the airport. Rocket engineer Boris Chertok recalls the drunken driver driving like a maniac. Unaware of the precision instruments on board, he finally crashed into a tree.

When he saw the payload, Korolyov was incandescent with rage. It was too big, too complicated and now too damaged. One of his engineers suggested they launch a simple radio beacon instead, a simple, small, light sphere with antennas and a transmitter, weighing just 70 kg. They quickly built it, and 50 years ago on October 4th 1957 the rocket rose on a bed of flames and disappeared into the night sky. When it was due to fly overhead on its first orbital pass, the Russian engineers and dignitaries crowded into the radio room and waited. Finally, it came, a faint sound, growing steadily louder and clearer as it streaked overhead: beep, beep, beep. The US Navy, plagued with launch failures, was shocked. Wernher von Braun was furious, and the American press went ballistic. The first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was now in orbit. The Space Age had begun.

So, what have we got to show after 50 years? Men have walked on the Moon, rovers tracked across Mars, and probes pierced the murky clouds of Venus and countless other worlds. The planets, known throughout all of human history as just points of light, have come alive in all their colourful and mesmerising glory. And we’ve learned to care about our planet too. The pictures of Earth taken by the returning Apollo astronauts, some of the most reproduced images ever, show us just how fragile our world is. One image can say what countless heartfelt environmental speeches cannot.

I sometimes hear people ask, ‘Why should we spend money on space exploration? We should focus on the problems here on Earth first.’ But if it hadn’t been for space exploration, we wouldn’t have known about the greenhouse effect or the ozone hole. It was while trying to understand why Venus was so horribly hot that scientists discovered the greenhouse effect and that this might also occur on Earth, and it was the odd behaviour of chlorine in Venus’s upper atmosphere that led scientists to stumble across the ozone hole over Antarctica.

Studies of Mars and its occasional planet-wide dust storms which led to plunging temperatures on the surface led scientists to the realisation that a decades-long ice age could be triggered on Earth by a nuclear exchange, the so-called nuclear winter effect. One of the most respected scientists in climate change research today, James Hansen of NASA, did his doctorate on the atmosphere of Venus. So, space has made a fabulous contribution, not just in accelerating technology and giving us things like computers and mobile phones, but in giving us important clues to problems here on Earth. So, going into space is one of the best things we can do to save our world, and ourselves.

Yes, we need to reduce our impact on the planet, make technologies more efficient so we get more benefit from those limited resources we do use, as well as make our cities, transport systems and industrial processes less damaging to ecosystems since we rely on the web of life to sustain us. We need bees to pollinate, trees to make oxygen and worms to aerate the soil or else we would quickly perish.

But once we’ve done that, what next? Do we restrict the size of families or mandate population controls? Because populations will continue to grow, especially as child mortality falls and science finds ways of extending human life. Do we nominate an arbitrary age at which people need to ‘retire’ from life, as in the dystopian fictional vision of Logan’s Run ? The logical thing to do is to expand beyond Earth, to build colonies on Mars, floating habitats in Earth’s Lagrange points, mines on the Moon and the asteroids, and expand deeper into our solar system.

It may sound unappealing to some, but so was the prospect (just a few centuries ago) of a long and arduous journey across treacherous oceans in cramped conditions, only to arrive in a harsh and unforgiving wilderness where conditions were difficult and starvation was a real possibility. And yet, tens of thousands of people set off for Australia and North America, among many other places, in search of a new life. Thousands perished. And yet, more came.

We will expand into space, and it needs to happen because Earth alone cannot sustain us. Space provides a pressure valve, but we also need to expand beyond Earth to ensure our survival because one day a massive calamity will befall our world-an asteroid strike, ice ages, super volcanoes, solar bursts or nuclear war-and we may disappear and our civilisation fall.

Some ask, so what if humans pass into history? I would say it’s not just a tragedy for us but also one for nature because without us there is no one to witness its infinite beauty; no one to marvel at a sunset, revel in a mountain view, or thrill to the breaking of a wave on a beach. As the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan once said, ‘We are a way for the universe to know itself.’

But we also deserve to continue because we have created things that are greater than ourselves. I don’t just mean scientific and engineering knowledge, valuable as that is; we have also created new and beautiful ways to see the world through art, music, literature and performance. Even if the cosmos is humming with other advanced civilisations, we deserve to be here. Nature in its diversity has made us as we are. We too are children of the universe, and have something to contribute.

Robyn Williams: The editor of Cosmos, the science magazine, Wilson da Silva, scheduled to fly into space with his friend Alan Finkel who is the next chancellor of Monash University. That’s when the rocket is ready.

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