Happy Birthday, Sputnik!

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John Moran from the planetarium at World Museum Liverpool reminisces about Sputnik 1 and reflects on its impact. There's more on the structure of Sputnik on the New York Times' site and the NASA site is carrying a retrospective.

photo of a silver ball with 4 silver rods sticking out of it

Replica of Sputnik. Image courtesy of NASA

The 4th October marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. The importance of Sputnik cannot be overestimated. Firstly, it ignited the space race between USSR and the United States. And then when you think of how far we have come in the last 50 years - landing a man on the Moon, space probes to every planet in the solar system, space stations where people can stay in space for months at a time, and (probably more important to me and you here on Earth) satellites that enable us to phone friends and relatives on the other side of the world, global positioning satellites (GPS) that stop me getting lost on my way to work, and not forgetting the ability to watch live football and news events as they happen - this was all made possible because of the direction Sputnik fired the world into.

My first memory of Sputnik 1 was when I visited this museum as a youngster, and on seeing the replica that is on display here I remember thinking, "wow, that has actually been into space", not realising that it was only a replica. I also remember being struck by how simplistic it seemed. Now that I am older and have a better understanding on the subject, I realise that I was basically right. The Sputnik 1 satellite consists of a couple of silver zinc batteries, a ventilation fan, four antennae and two transmitters that went 'beep-beep-beep'. These 'beeps' were picked up by ham radio operators all over the world. The term "brilliantly simple, yet simply brilliant" springs to mind.

There ended up being something like 40 Sputniks altogether, but Sputnik 2 was groundbreaking too, as it was the first time a living organism was sent into space in the form of a dog named Laika, which means 'barker', (being blasted into space on nothing more than a giant firework gave poor Laika plenty of reason to bark in my opinion). As a result people named it 'Muttnik'.

So on October 4th, when you are sitting down to the football, or trying to figure out how to work that GPS on the dashboard of your car, remember this was all made possible because of the Sputnik 1 satellite. We will have a birthday card in the atrium of World Museum Liverpool to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this historic event.