The Space Age at Fifty

Fifty years ago the world was shocked when a small, round object appeared in the skies overhead. On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, starting the space age.

By today’s standards, it wasn’t much of a satellite. Weighing only 183.9 pounds, and 22.8 inches in diameter, Sputnik was a beach ball sized globe orbiting the world every ninety minutes or so, sending it’s telemetry back to earth. Amateur radio operators were able to listen to the beep-beep-beep as it passed overhead.

Then less than a month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik II, with the dog Laika aboard. Fears were if the Russians could do that, what would stop them from orbiting nuclear weapons?

The United States scrambled to catch up, eventually orbiting Explorer I on January 31, 1958. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Even though the Russians beat everyone to the punch, satellites had been planned for a few years. In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions established July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 as the International Geophysical Year. In 1954 the council adopted a resolution to launch satellites into orbit to study the Earth.

In 1955 the United States had approved the Vanguard project as the country’s proposal for IGY. However, instead of Vanguard, Explorer I (developed by Wernher von Braun’s team) made it to space first.

This led to many firsts: communication satellites, manned flights, the moon missions, Skylab, Mir, the shuttle, ISS, and soon back to the moon with the Constellation program.

It took less than fifty years from Kitty Hawk to orbiting a satellite, and look what has happened since. My, how time flies when you’re having fun.


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