History of Satellites
Sputnik and The Dawn of
the Space Age
Original Information provided by
Roger D. Launius NASA Chief Historian
History changed on October 4, 1957,
when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world's
first artificial satellite was about the size of a basketball, weighed
only 183 pounds, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical
path. 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 story begins in 1952, when the
International Council of Scientific Unions decided to establish July 1,
1957, to December 31, 1958, as the
Geophysical Year (IGY) because the scientists knew that the cycles
of solar activity would be at a high point then. In October 1954, the council
adopted a resolution calling for artificial satellites to be launched during
the IGY to map the Earth's surface.
In July 1955, the White House announced
to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite for the IGY and solicited proposals
from various Government research agencies to undertake development. In
September 1955, the Naval Research Laboratory's
proposal was chosen to represent the U.S. during the IGY.
Sputnik launch changed everything. As a technical achievement, Sputnik
caught the world's attention and the American public off-guard. Its size
was more impressive than Vanguard's intended 3.5-pound payload. In addition,
the public feared that the Soviets' ability to launch satellites also translated
into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear
weapons from Europe to the U.S. Then the Soviets struck again; on November
3, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier payload, including
a dog named Laika.
Immediately after the Sputnik I launch
in October, the U.S. Defense Department responded to the political furor
by approving funding for another U.S. satellite project. As a simultaneous
alternative to Vanguard, Wernher von Braun and his Army Redstone Arsenal
team began work on the Explorer project.
On January 31, 1958, the tide changed,
when the United States successfully launched Explorer I. This satellite
carried a small scientific payload that eventually discovered the magnetic
radiation belts around the Earth, named after principal investigator James
Van Allen. The Explorer program continued as a successful ongoing series
of lightweight, scientifically useful spacecraft.
The Sputnik launch also led directly
to the creation of National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA). In July 1958, Congress passed the National
Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the "Space Act"), which
created NASA as of October 1, 1958 from the National Advisory Committee
for Aeronautics (NACA) and other government agencies.
and the Origins of the Space Age
Written by Roger D. Launius.
All about Sputniks 1, 2, and 3,
written by James Harford
Sputnik And The International Geophysical Year
Written by Asif A. Siddiqi
of Those Involved with Sputnik
in Satellite History
October 4, 1957 The Russian Sputnik
1 is the first satellite in space. Russia becomes the first space power.
November 3, 1957 A dog named 'Laika' is the first living creature in space.
Explorer-I, officially known as
Satellite 1958 Alpha, was the first United States earth satellite and was
sent aloft as part of the United States program for the International Geophysical
NASA did pioneering work in space
applications such as communications satellites in the 1960s. The Echo,
Telstar, Relay, and Syncom satellites were built by NASA or by the private
sector based on significant NASA advances.
In the 1970s, NASA's Landsat program
literally changed the way we look at our planet Earth. The first three
Landsat satellites, launched in 1972, 1975, and 1978, transmitted back
to Earth complex data streams that could be converted into colored pictures.
Landsat data has been used in a variety of practical commercial applications
such as crop management and fault line detection, and to track many kinds
of weather such as droughts, forest fires, and ice floes. NASA has been
involved in a variety of other Earth science efforts such as the Earth
Observation System of spacecraft and data processing that have yielded
important scientific results in such areas as tropical deforestation, global
warming, and climate change.
Starts with a useful overview of
the early history of satellite communications and includes information
on NASA's current Advanced Communications Technology Satellite.
Check out information on programs
such as Tiros and Nimbus.
NASA has been involved with projects
ranging from Landsat to TOPEX/POSEIDON and the Earth Observing System (EOS).
Highly automated communications
process by which measurements are made and other data collected at remote
or inaccessible points and transmitted to receiving equipment for monitoring.
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