Sixty years later it is Hard To Imagine the astonishment followed by fright that accompanied the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. American attempts to launch its own satellite had been mired in technical challenges and bureaucratic inertia. Now, a rival superpower had accomplished a feat that the United States had not been able to achieve. The implications were considered grave.

What was Sputnik?

Sputnik was a sphere 22 inches in diameter and weighing 184 pounds. It was launched into an elliptical orbit with the highest point being 584 miles from Earth and the lowest point being 143 miles.

It orbited the Earth several times a day, visible through binoculars at night, transmitting a radio signal that could be picked up by amateur radio operators, a steady beeping sound. Sputnik passed over the United States several times a day before it burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere in January 1958.

The Sputnik moment

To say that the United States was caught off guard by the launch of Sputnik would be to put the matter mildly. People were aware that the same rocket that could put a satellite into space could also deliver a nuclear bomb to an American city. The Soviet feat was also just an embarrassment for a country that had been basking in a complacent view that it was the supreme technological power on Earth.

The space race begins

Sputnik led directly to the space race that dominated the rest of the 1950s and the 1960s. The United States Government founded NASA, a civilian agency that would coordinate American space efforts a year later. However, the Soviets achieved a series of firsts for the next few years, including the first human being in space on April 12, 1961.

The persistent leadership of the USSR led to President John F. Kennedy’s throwing down the gauntlet with the challenge to a race to the moon. Eight years later, Americans walked on the surface of the moon, and the Soviet Union had been humbled into the dust.

Could it happen again?

It is hard to imagine another Sputnik moment galvanizing the United States to pour greater resources into space exploration.

A North Korean satellite or a Chinese crewed moon landing would undoubtedly be of some concern. However, space is no longer the exclusive province of the United States government 60 years after Sputnik. The commercial sector is increasingly being seen as an independent player in space, with private plans for lunar and asteroid mining and even Mars colonies being taken seriously. The Google Lunar X-Prize has set up a private sector race to the moon, with the prize being monetary as well as prestige. Rivalries between commercial companies may well replace those between nations, more apt to cooperate in space, in the pushing back of the high frontier.