From our files: Made-in-U.S.S.R.‘Moon’ Circles Earth; Space Era Advent Jolts Washington

From the Oct 5, 1957 edition.

By , Chief, Washington News Bureau The Christian Science Monitor

The first earth satellite, hurtling around the earth in its manmade orbit, evoked several Washington reactions:

Congratulations to the Soviet Union for its feat in hoisting the first mechanical moon above the earth.

Chagrin that Moscow had beaten the United States, which is not scheduled to launch its earth satellite until next spring, although the date conceivably could be advanced.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Surprise at the size of the Soviet satellite, which is more than eight times heavier than the contemplated American vehicle.

Sharp awareness that the Soviet accomplishment indicated a very high degree of skill and development in the field of far-flying missiles.

And finally, a startled look ahead to the not-so-distant future when still heavier satellites, capable of carrying instruments for “inspecting” other countries’ territory and eventually capable of carrying weapons, would be circling this earthly sphere.

Comment Sparse

There was no Congress in session in Washington to comment on the outstanding Soviet achievement, there were few available American diplomats, and President Eisenhower had flown off for a quiet weekend at Gettysburg. So capital comment came largely from the physicists and specialists engaged in preparing the American earth satellite some attending an International Geophysical Year Conference here.

In the international fraternity of natural science there was a sporting amount of congratulations to the Soviets.

Lloyd Berkner, nuclear physicist and American IGY official attending a party at the Soviet Embassy celebrating the IGY rockets and satellites conference here, offered plaudits to A. A. Blagonravov, a top Soviet satellite expert.

“It would have been nice if the United States had been first but let’s be glad that it’s been achieved,“ Dr. Berkner declared.

‘Moonwatch’ Gains?

Joseph Kaplan, chairman of the United States National Committee for the IGY, said:

“I am amazed that in the short time in which the Soviets had to plan—obviously not any longer than we had—they made this remarkable achievement.”

“From the point of view of international cooperation the important thing is that a satellite has been launched. They did it and did it first.”

“I hope they give us enough information so that our ‘moonwatch’ teams can help learn the scientific benefits.”

Experts pointed out that if the Soviets could launch a satellite 23 inches across and weighing 185 pounds, they soon could launch still heavier ones.

Soviet expert Blagonravov termed the Soviet launching merely the first of mankind’s steps into space. He reported that he had sent his own dog 90 miles skyward in a rocket in 1951, without ill effects. The next step would be to send an animal up in a satellite, and then “men will penetrate space.”

‘Second Round’ Moscow’s

The Soviet natural scientist said there was no danger to any of the earth’s peoples form this man-made moon, for it would disintegrate from friction when it began to fall back into the earth’s heavier atmosphere.

However, American officials were not unaware of the intense meaning of the Soviet accomplishment in terms of rockets and missiles.

“The Soviet satellite gives the Russians no military advantage as such,” declared Dr. Fred L. Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Observatory, “but it indicates the Russian potential in the area of missiles. We won the first round with the H-bomb, but they took the second with the satellite.”

There was a very penetrating realization in Washington—and at the Pentagon—that the Soviets again had demonstrated the excellence of their basic research, and the speed with which they are able to translate research into actual, usable hardware.

‘Pressure Off’ Now

Undoubtedly, had Congress been in town, there would be questions as to why the Soviets had been allowed to outdistance the Americans. As if in reply to this unstated query, William M. Holaday, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Guided Missiles, said the achievement would not be evidence of Soviet technological superiority in missile and rocket developments.

The Soviets may have placed great emphasis, time, and money in getting the satellite into orbit first in order to embarrass the United States, Mr. Holaday suggested. Quite conceivably, they had given the project higher priority than has the United States, which is not scheduled to launch its firs full-scale satellite until next spring. This autumn, four small test spheres will be fired as part of the advance testing program and some of these may go into a globe-circling orbit.

Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett, whose Office of Naval Research has charge of launching the American satellites, said the United States never regarded the program as a “race with the Russians.” A very opposite impression was given by American experts at the Soviet Embassy reception when they commented, “Now the pressure to win is off, and we can concentrate on doing a good job.”

What, No Green Cheese? ‘Moon’ Questions Answered

Natural scientists around the world have almost unanimously acclaimed the successful launching of the Soviet sputnik (satellite) as a great victory that will benefit all mankind.

But, while the full impact of the satellite’s importance as a pure scientific achievement broke almost immediately into the thinking of the natural scientists, its sudden appearance together with its second tiny “moon” has left the rest of us with some unanswered questions.

What keeps it in its orbit and how was it gotten up there in the first place? How long is it likely to stay up there, and what will bring it down? In layman’s language, if it is such a marvelous scientific achievement, what good is it?

Following are simplified answers to these questions:

What keeps sputnik in its orbit?

The Soviet “moon” is circling the earth in an orbit that, at times at least, carries it more than 500 miles away from the earth. It is traveling some 18,000 miles an hour.

All the time, like a weight dropped from an airplane, it is “trying” to fall to the ground under the ever-present pull of gravity, which is approximately the same at that altitude as it is nearer the earth.

However, because of its high speed, the satellite does not fall, but goes into an orbit whose exact shape has not yet, in this case, been defined with precision.

The satellite’s velocity at any given moment is in a direction parallel to the ground. If there were no gravity, it would fly off, away from the earth’s sphere, in a straight line. But with gravity at work, the resultant balance between the satellite’s tendency to shoot off on a tangent, because of its velocity, and its tendency to fall under gravity is the orbit in which it goes on round and round the earth.

Thus, the satellite’s orbit depends a good deal on its velocity. If that velocity were too low—-say, only 12, 000 miles an hour—the satellite would quickly be pulled down into the denser atmosphere and burn up from friction.

Conversely, if the speed were too high, the satellite would swing in a wider orbit until, at 25,000 miles an hour, it could break free of earth’s hold and escape into interplanetary space.

That is why 25,000 miles an hour is called earth’s “escape velocity.” The pull of gravity would still be acting on the satellite, but at this seed or greater, this pull would be too weak to hold the satellite within an earthly orbit.

How was the satellite put into its orbit?

The design of the Soviet launching rocket is, of course, not known in any detail. However, it is known that the satellite was lifted by a multi-stage (perhaps three stage) rocket.

In any case, this multi-section rocket would take off vertically, rapidly gathering speed under the thrust of powerful rocket motors. At some predetermined point, perhaps when the first stage of the rocket burned out and dropped off, lightening the over-all weight, the launching vehicle would begin to tilt away from the vertical.

The rocket vehicle would curve until at orbit height, it was traveling parallel to the ground. The satellite then probably was released and fired off into its orbit with a kick calculated to make up any difference between the final speed of the rocket launcher and the necessary final speed for the satellite to maintain its orbit.

How long is the “moon” likely to stay aloft and what will bring it down?

This is a difficult question because the answer depends, in part, on the unknown conditions in the tenuous remnants of the atmosphere through which the satellite is flying.

It is expected that the satellite will gradually be slowed down by friction with this very tenuous air. As it slow, it will sink lower and lower until, reaching the denser part of the upper air, it will burn up from frictional heating like a meteor.

Estimates on the expected life of the present satellite have ranged from two days to a century or more. Precise estimates are impossible because so little is known about the region through which it is traveling. However, natural scientists hope to learn something about this region, especially about air densities there, just by observing the rate at which the satellite is slowed down.

What good is sputnik?

It would take a book to answer this question satisfactorily. However, some hint of its usefulness can be gained from the fact that knowledge of conditions at satellite heights are and essential prerequisite to the design of high-flying missiles or future space-traveling vehicles.

Also, being beyond the atmosphere for all practical purposes, instruments mounted in the satellite would have an unobstructed view of the sun, moon, and stars.

Earthbound astronomers are continually frustrated by the difficulty of seeing precise details on astronomical objects because of the wiggling produced in their telescopes by the atmosphere even on clear nights.

The value of a properly instrumented satellite for overcoming this frustration was illustrated recently by the vivid pictures of the sun taken by a telescopic camera mounted on a balloon which carried it above 95 per cent of the atmosphere over Minnesota.

Dr. Martin Schwartzschild of Princeton University, who ran this experiment, said that the pictures showed details of solar structure never seen before. Such pictures, it was said could completely upset previous conceptions of the sun which had been formed by viewing it through the earth’s obscuring atmosphere.

These few examples of satellite uses may serve to illustrate why the world’s natural scientists have hailed the Soviet sputnik as a great victory for all mankind in its conquest of ignorance and in its ever-broadening sphere of adventure.

–Robert C. Cowen, Natural Science Editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.