In the early 1950s, the Cold War was casting its shadow across the whole world, while people were waiting for the Space Age to begin. And so it did, but without the jetpacks, holidays on the Moon and robot helpers that everyone was hoping for. The catalyst was one of the largest international scientific collaborations ever undertaken: the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58.
This may not sound terribly exciting, but the IGY program, involving 60,000 scientists from 67 countries, had a very ambitious aim. It was nothing less than understanding the whole Earth and its setting in space. Only one element was missing: the view from orbit.
Six nations had the capability to launch a satellite in the early 50s. They were the US, USSR, UK, France, Japan – and Australia. Australia had developed its own home-grown rockets which could reach the upper limits of the atmosphere, at the Woomera rocket range in the South Australian desert. Spaceport Australia seemed just around the corner.
The IGY committee decided to add a satellite launch to the scientific program, and the ‘space race’ suddenly became real. The US Naval Research Laboratory was already working on a satellite called Project Vanguard. You might wonder why the Navy was interested in space, but it had been recognized ever since Edward Everett Hale published his science fiction story Brick Moon in 1869 that a satellite could be used for maritime navigation. They called the satellite ‘Vanguard’ because the US expected to be the first nation in space.
The USSR space program, under the leadership of Sergei Korolev, had a satellite in progress too. It was rather mysteriously called ‘Object D’, but was later renamed Sputnik or ‘fellow traveler’.
A new moon rises
Sputnik 1 leaped off Earth on October 4 in 1957 and sent shock waves throughout the world with its distinctive radio beep, especially in the United States.
How strange that must have been, to think that there were human objects orbiting close to Earth among the previously remote stars. This was such a new thing that people didn’t know whether to be excited or frightened. Was it a weapon? Would it be dropping bombs onto Earth from orbit? Poet and journalist Mary Gilmore, writing in her Arrows column in the Sydney Tribune, said ‘Sputnik, as a means of war, puts all on an equality. High or low there is no escape’.
There were military implications of the move into space, for sure, but people incorporated the new object into popular culture in all kinds of ways. There was a craze in the US to add -nik to any word that would take it – hence we have beatnik, refusenik, no-goodnik, and many others. In Russia and Japan, the satellite became part of Christmas symbolism, as a companion for Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas as he made his own orbit of Earth in a single night. (The satellite was faster at around 90 minutes).
Australians were mostly excited. The Sydney Waterside Workers Federation sent a cable of congratulations, along with many other unions, showing workers’ solidarity with their Soviet comrades. The amateur radio community eagerly tracked and listened to Sputnik’s beep. Astronomer Dr A Pryzbyleski, from the Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, provided viewing times in the local newspaper so that people could go outside to see it for themselves. At dusk and dawn, light would catch the polished sphere and make it visible even from the distance of 500 km – although it’s likely that people were often observing the larger rocket body, which remained in orbit until December.
Perhaps my favourite reaction, though, was the Western Australian farmer who named his half-sibling Ayrshire calves Sputnik and Satellite. There were space cows on the farm I grew up on too: two Jerseys called Venus and Stardust. There’s something going on with space and dairy products when you think about it – the cow jumped over the Moon, which is made of cheese, and the Milky Way galaxy is a splash of bright white milk.
Soon the lonely satellite, the furthest human object from Earth, had company. Sputnik 2 with Laika the dog on board was launched in November 1957, and the US Explorer 1 in January 1958. Poor old Vanguard was last in the race, finally making it into orbit in March 1958. It’s the only one of the early satellites still up there.
But Sputnik’s days were already numbered. The silver sphere re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958. If its successful orbit had been the first of its kind, so too was its incineration, as the first piece of space junk ever to die. The friction and compression of hitting the upper layers of the atmosphere at a speed of thousands of kilometres per hour heated the 86 kg aluminium alloy body to beyond its melting point. For a few moments perhaps Sputnik 1 became glittering raindrops of molten metal, until they evaporated into mist.
Every year, the date of Sputnik 1’s launch on 4 October kicks off World Space Week. Around the world people organise parties and events. I love this week because it’s about us, the Earthbound, celebrating our place in the universe, and the shiny space ball which started it all.
Jack, the clever bartender at First Bar in Rundle Mall, Adelaide, created this cocktail for our World Space Week party a few years ago. It's based on the classic Aviator and my space colleague Sumen Rai dubbed it the October Sky in honour of Sputnik 1. It was rather delicious, so I extracted the recipe from him and share it with you here. Thanks Jack!
45 ml gin
15 ml Maraschino liqueur
15 ml lemon juice
dash of elderflower syrup (Monin brand)
15 ml Alizé Bleu liqueur
Shake it with ice and strain it, and pour into a martini glass. Garnish with a glacé cherry into which four toothpicks have been inserted to resemble Sputnik 1’s antennas.
Alice Gorman's book Dr Space Junk vs The Universe: Archaeology and the future will be published by NewSouth in April 2019.