I saw Sputnik!

by Ed Sawicki - March 25, 2019


In early October 1957, I was looking at a bright white dot slowly moving across the night sky. My dad said it was the Soviet satellite Sputnik. I remember being puzzled over whether this was a good thing or bad, given the various comments from the neighbors standing in the street.

I know now that it wasn't watching Sputnik. I was looking at the second stage of the rocket used to carry Sputnik to orbit. That second stage also achieved orbit, and it was outfitted with reflective material to make it highly visible. It was much brighter than the far smaller Sputnik satellite. The second stage followed behind Sputnik at a distance.

Sputnik carried a radio transmitter beacon that sent a continuous series of beeps that could be received by anyone with a shortwave radio. It was equipped with a sufficient battery supply to keep it transmitting for weeks. Its transmitter kept broadcasting for three weeks during 326 orbits.

This was a time when shortwave radio use was common and large numbers of people worldwide could tune in. In a sense, shortwave then was like today's Internet.

Americans Most Misinformed

The reflective material on the orbiting rocket and the beep-beep signals from the Sputnik satellite were effective Soviet propaganda tools. These were clear signs that the Soviets were winning the race for space and they were saying so in their press. This newspaper clipping ran in U.S. newspapers in 1958.

U.S. Sputniks

To make matters worse, American journalists were referring to U.S. satellites as "U.S. Sputniks". This clipping was also from 1958.

The United States responded by creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), part of the Department of Defense, in February, 1958. It then created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in October, 1958.

Beating Sputnik

Bumper-1 rocket

In July of 1950, the first rocket fired from Cape Canaveral was named Bumper 8. It used a German V2 rocket as its first stage and a U.S. Army WAC Corporal sounding rocket as the second stage. The second stage reached almost 400 kilometers, higher than even modern Space Shuttles have flown.

If Bumper-8 had carried and deployed a radio transmitter beacon, it could have beat Sputnik by 7 years. The WAC Corporal was not capable of carrying the weight of a Sputnik-sized transmitter. It could have carried a much lighter-weight beacon with a battery supply that would have lasted for a short duration.

In the early 1950s, the rocketmen, at what would eventually become ARPA and NASA in 1958, weren't thinking of Cold War propaganda. If they had, they would have designed their launches differently.


Wikipedia: Sputnik 1

Sputnik launch vehicle

Wikipedia: Cape Canaveral

Wikipedia: WAC Corporal

Wikipedia: NASA

Sputnik Transmitter


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