March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Спутник-1, Anniversary 53

Posted: Friday, October 1st, 2010

by Richard Shope

I was nearly six years old. Eisenhower was President.  Mickey Mantle was playing for the Yankees, Hank Aaron for the Braves, as Milwaukee trimmed New York for the World Series.  But the real World Series was playing out in the skies above.  The Soviets had pitched Sputnik into orbit on October 4, 1957, and for 92 nights, the world in the grandstands watched and listened as this silvery orb with its four comet-like sprays of antennae, beep, beepity, beeped around the world for all to hear on FM radio and for all to see in the twilight hours as it passed overhead.

I had started second grade that year in Mrs. Avery’s class at Belle Sherman school in Ithaca, New York.  My father was working on his veterinary degree at Cornell University.  We lived on the grounds of the veterinary college campus near the Baker house.  We had a large expanse of backyard sloping down a hill toward a woods with trees to climb and copperhead snakes to avoid.  October twilights were crisp and clear with a wide view of the sky.  I recall my Dad excitedly stirring us to look up at a shining pinpoint of light moving casually across our field of view.  It was better than the fleeting flash of a “shooting star.”  Moments later we were all abuzz chasing fireflies.  Little did we know how profoundly that silvery beeping satellite would transform the world.

Sputnik stirred up a hornet’s nest, pitting two great worldviews against each other in what was known as the space race.  Eisenhower and Congress formed NASA with the Space Act of 1958 and began to invest heavily in science education, launching the famous alphabet soup of innovative approaches to accelerate America’s pace.  Beneath the technical prowess was the naked fear that a nuclear warhead might be the next to be launched.  Belle Sherman had air-raid drills: We were corralled into the hallway, instructed to cover our heads with our jackets to keep our eyes from melting in the nuclear flash.  The Space Race was intensified by Kennedy’s State of the Union address on May 23, 1961, with a call to reach the moon and back by the end of the decade.  Vanguard, Explorer, Ranger, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo—America succeeded in winning the space race.  But then, there was a seeming pause.  Only seeming, because, in fact, we have had an ongoing series of successful launches of satellites looking back at Earth and spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond.  We have established a human reach to the very edge of the heliosphere with the Voyager probes.  But it is the physical human presence that has paused in low-Earth orbit, with our noses nudging just above the exosphere, like ancient lobe fish wondering whether to evolve to the next level.

Tracings of Sputnik's orbital path.

Perhaps humanity balked, Kierkegaard-like, in fear and trembling upon peering into the abyss of space and at what Buzz Aldrin calls the “magnificent desolation” of the moon.  The technical chasm between here and Mars and the asteroids and worlds beyond is enough to give any space enthusiast pause.  But it is the emotional temerity that has stopped us cold.  So the question for us as satellite educators, fascinated as we are with the wonder, the technology, the science, the adventure, is how we can become catalysts to energize the next generation to boldly go forth, to step into the theater of satellite action.

Sputnik model

Sputnik model

Here’s my suggestion: For the next 92 days, from October 4, 2010 to January 4, 2011, celebrate DAILY the ushering-in of the era of satellites, with tidbits of information adding up to a collection of knowledge.  Start with Спутник-1, but keep going.  Invite your students to explore the Internet for the history of satellite achievement from then to now.  Sites with Sputnik information abound.  A simple search lets you reconnect to the thrill that lit up the twilight skies 53 years ago, and to remind ourselves that we are still on the threshhold to explore space.

Richard Shope is president of the Satellite Educators Association

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

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