In 1957, the Soviets launched a satellite—and many scientific careers
Posted by Christina Folz, OPN Managing Editor
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, the world’s first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite. Launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, Sputnik 1 was a 22-in. aluminum sphere with four spring-loaded whip antennae in tow. Although the satellite itself weighed just 183 pounds, it created a crushing burden on the American psyche. During a time of major Cold War tensions, the Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space.
What’s worse, the U.S. satellite that had been under development at the time was a much simpler model that weighed a mere 3.5 lbs. And before the shock of Sputnik 1 had faded, the Soviets launched the 1,120-lb. Sputnik 2 on November 3 of the same year. As I found on NASA’s excellent history of Sputnik, the Democratic governor of Michigan even wrote a poem about it, which questioned then-president Dwight Eisenhower’s ability to lead the United States into the Space Age:
Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it’s a Commie sky
And Uncle Sam’s asleep.
You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.
What no one realized at the time was the enormous impact that Sputnik would have on a generation of scientists, who became captivated by the endless possibilities that science and technology could offer them. Many would go on to become some of our society’s most accomplished researchers and engineers, including astronauts and Nobel laureates. Sputnik also led directly to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 1, 1958.
I did some poking around in OPN’s archives to get a sense of what Sputnik meant to OSA members. Here’s what I found:
• In early October 2005, optical scientist Gregory Olsen became one of the first civilians to fly in space (OPN, December 2005, Scatterings and OPN, June 2004, Scatterings). The chief executive officer of the Princeton, N.J.-based Sensors Unlimited launched into Earth orbit from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. “I remember Sputnik vividly,” Olsen said. “I was in seventh grade. I always had a fascination with space. I’d never dreamed I’d get there...”
• James Gilbert Baker, a renowned astronomer and physicist who passed away in 2005, designed the Baker-Nunn satellite-tracking camera to support the Air Force’s early satellite tracking and space surveillance networks before the launch of Sputnik (OPN, October 2005, In Memory). Because of his foresight, cameras were in place to track the satellite in October 1957. The cameras allowed the precise determination of orbiting spacecraft for more than three decades.
• In his April 2002 history column, John Howard makes the case that the launch of Sputnik and other Cold-War pressures played a role in the formation of OSA’s executive office. The very same month that the satellite launched, OSA appointed a special committee—the Committee on Future Policies (also known as the Baird Committee)—to chart the future course of the Society.
The U.S. Defense Department had boosted support for research and development, and optics was booming at the time. But some young researchers felt that OSA and its flagship journal were not keeping up with the pace of progress. As a result, the Baird Committee recommended that OSA broaden the topics covered at its meetings and in its journal and establish an executive office with full-time staff.
• Rod Alferness, OSA’s president-elect and a senior vice president of optical networking research at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, attributes his interest in science to the time of Sputnik, which he calls “an era when there was real excitement about science.” Former OSA board member James Leger also describes himself as “a product of Sputnik, the space race and the ‘science is cool’ generation.”
• Finally, in the February 2005 column on early laser development, Theodor W. Hänsch (who was later awarded the Nobel Prize in physics) describes how he and OSA Honorary Member Art Schawlow used funding from Art’s post-Sputnik-era Army contract for a playful purpose: to invent the world’s first edible laser in 1970. The two used Knox gelatin mixed with sodium fluorescein as a medium for an AVCO nitrogen laser. Inspired by the work, OSA Honorary Member Herwig Kogelnik and Charles Shank at Bell Labs soon realized the first distributed feedback laser with laser dyes in a holographic grating structure of dichromated gelatin.
2007-10 October, Optics history