Thank Sputnik for today's orbital freedom

Fifty years after the Russian satellite went into Earth orbit, this pioneer in space technology still holds political significance.

Next Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the rise of Earth's first artificial moon – Russia's Sputnik satellite. That may seem like a small achievement in an era when we watch robots explore Mars and view our weather from space. But orbiting a 184-pound beeping sphere twice the size of a basketball with no scientific or military capability sent an emotional shock wave around the world in October 1957.

It was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union. A country many considered "backward" was now showing advanced technological capability.

For the United States, it was a strategic victory. Secret documents, now declassified, show the Eisenhower administration was counting on using small scientific satellites to establish the principle of orbital freedom. Like freedom of the high seas, where no nation can claim sovereignty, freedom of Earth orbit meant that any nation could orbit satellites that passed over any other nation at will. Once that principle was established, spy satellites would soon circle the planet.

Sputnik fit the plan. It was Russian and passed over the US. Therefore, the Soviet Union could not object to American satellites passing over its territory. It was also a peaceful forerunner of satellites that gather scientific data. And as a result, no other nations objected to their passing overhead.

That is why Eisenhower greeted Sputnik with what seemed at the time to be a baffling equanimity.

The American public, including all its politicians, were not privy to his strategy. They assumed Sputnik showed the US lagged behind the Soviet Union in rocketry and, perhaps, in some other technologies. They demanded action. Crafty Eisenhower had not anticipated that political firestorm. The actions he and the Congress then took beefed up support for scientific research and strengthened science education. They laid the foundation for the space program that eventually put astronauts on the moon.

The disconnect between the perceptions of Eisenhower and the general public was due to secrecy and public indifference to what, in retrospect, was obvious technological progress in rocketry. Several studies in the late 1940s and early 1950s concluded that it would soon be possible to orbit at least small satellites. Both American and Russian rocket experts were saying this publicly. The American public, however, considered it wishful science fiction.

By 1954, the global scientific community was planning for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) – an 18-month scientific exploration of all geophysical aspects of our planet starting in the fall of 1957. The US and Soviet Union were leading participants. They both promised to launch the world's first scientific satellites. Sputnik should have been no surprise. But, once again, the public wasn't paying attention. (The Monitor editor handling my reports of an impending Russian satellite later told me that "We didn't believe you.")

Meanwhile, Eisenhower did not want to alarm the Russians by trying aggressively to be "first" into orbit. He let the Russians do it and establish freedom of orbit.

In the end, there was glory for all. The Russians conducted humanity's first orbital mission. A few months later, the first US satellite, Explorer 1, dis­covered the belts of electrically charged particles that surround Earth – the IGY's most important discovery.

The real winner was humanity. Just look at the wonders of space technology we now take for granted.

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