The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was about the size of a beach ball. It was a heavy beach ball, however, weighing in at 183.9 pounds. It took about an hour and a half to orbit the Earth, traveling at 18,000 miles per hour. According to NASA’s website:
“That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.”
When the news of Sputnik was broadcast, suddenly science became a popular subject. As “The New York Times” wrote on the occasion of Sputnik’s fiftieth anniversary,
“For many, Sputnik was proof that American education, particularly in science, had fallen behind. Scientists and engineers warned Congress that the cold war was being fought with slide rules, not rifles. In response Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, providing, among other things, college scholarships and other help for aspiring scientists, engineers and mathematicians.”
Unfortunately, this science enthusiasm didn’t last long, especially once the Cold War ended. But as Natalie Angier observes in her excellent book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science:
“Scientists are hardly alone in their conviction that America’s scientific eminence is one of our greatest sources of strength. Science and engineering have given us the integrated circuit, the Internet, protease inhibitors, statins, spray-on Pam, Velcro, Viagra, glow-in-the-dark slime, a childhood vaccine syllabus that has left slacker students with no better excuse for not coming to class than a ‘persistent Harry Potter headache,’ computer devices named after fruits or fruit parts, and advanced weapons systems named after stinging arthropods or Native American tribes.”
Sputnik stayed in orbit for 57 days. It was completely destroyed when it reentered the atmosphere on January 4, 1958. The U.S. launched its first satellite into orbit not long afterward, on February 1, 1958.
So have some cake today for Sputnik’s anniversary, and think about taking “A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science” with Natalie Angier in her entertaining book!