October 4, 1957 – The USSR Launches Sputnik

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.”

‘The sound that forevermore separates the old from the new’
– NBC news (on Sputnik’s “beep-beep” chirp), 4 Oct 1957

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!

Prize-winning Sputnik cake by Mommabuda on cakecentral.com

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7 Responses to October 4, 1957 – The USSR Launches Sputnik

  1. softdrink says:

    Only the size of a beach ball? Huh. I never would’ve guessed…it’s got such a larger than life reputation, I figured it was some huge thing.

  2. Sandy says:

    About a dozen things in the post surprised me. I knew what Sputnik was in general terms but that is about it. And I love that cake!

  3. Belle says:

    I never knew it was only the size of a beach ball, either! The cake looks very very good.

  4. Staci says:

    That cake is so very cool!

  5. ds says:

    Great cake! No, I had no clue as to the size of Sputnik, either. Or that it sparked the intense focus on math and science in the schols. Have you read Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami? You might like it, though it’s not truly about the satellite. Of course…

  6. Margot says:

    I was in high school when Sputnik was launched. I remember very well all the hub-bub that followed. There was so much panic about the idea that Russia was going to conquer us from space. Seems silly now. But I’m glad you highlighted this day in history.

  7. Jenners says:

    Love that cake!

    And I didn’t realize Sputnik was so small!!!

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