Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Sputnik Legacy - 50 Years in Retrospect

By Lt Col John E. Shaw, USAF
Courtesy of the US Air Force Air and Space Power Journal

Blog Editor Note: And the frequencies that Sputnik 1 used: 20.005 and 40.002 MHz. In the October issue of Monitoring Times magazine there is a great first hand account on monitoring Sputnik 1 by the dean of the radio hobby -- Tom Kneitel. Don't miss this piece.

For its small size, the metal sphere that hurtled into Earth orbit 50 years ago on 4 October 1957 has had an extraordinarily large influence on human events. Sputnik produced the immediate effect of great pride for the Soviet Union and great embarrassment for the United States. The communist nation supposedly so far behind the Western allies had shown the world the formidable nature of its technology and, therefore (by the logic of the day), its ideology. Neither could anyone escape the reality that, now, no part of the United States lay beyond the reach of Soviet missiles.

As the immediate shockwave of Sputnik dissipated, however, the longer-term effects, ironically, began to run counter to Soviet expectations and interests. First, in the tradition of the USS Maine, the RMS Lusitania, and the USS Arizona (and, of course, the broader attack on Pearl Harbor), the iconic “vessel” named Sputnik galvanized American will and enhanced determination—political, technological, and cultural—to settle for nothing short of victory in space. The first “victory” campaign there came to be defined—through implicit agreement between the superpowers by their resource commitments and focused efforts—by the race for the moon, ultimately won by the United States in 1969 but contested up to the very last by the Soviet Union.

Second, Sputnik resolved the simmering issue of satellite overflight. Could satellites pass over nations unopposed whereas aircraft could not? The Soviets’ haste to beat the Americans into space with Sputnik settled the issue before it could even become a matter of significant dispute. Having boasted of Sputnik, which passed over the United States several times a day and even became visible at twilight to the American public, the Soviets could hardly object to later overflights of their own territory by US satellites. This de facto resolution of the overflight problem worked to American advantage as time wore on since spaceborne assets became the most reliable and effective capability for collecting intelligence on the increasingly hermetic Soviet Union.

But today, from our vantage point of 50 years, perhaps the most significant effect of Sputnik involved not what it led the superpowers to do but what it distracted them from—specifically, direct conventional or even nuclear confrontation. The Soviet satellite kicked off what we might call the “Great Space War.” With the race for the moon, the subsequent dueling of spy satellites and space stations, and the culmination in confrontations over the Strategic Defense Initiative, this became a form of surrogate warfare in the Cold War era—a stage on which the superpowers could pit resources, ­ideologies, and wills against each other in a manner far less deadly than open warfare.

As we look back at Sputnik’s legacy, we can reasonably ask what will take the form of the next “Sputnik” in the medium of space. What event will produce a similar galvanizing of will and focusing of effort on the part of US national-security space efforts? Will an announced Chinese lunar (or possibly Martian) mission or even a “Space Pearl Harbor” that devastates US space capabilities become the next catalyst for a discontinuous leap in effort, focus, and capabilities? The lessons of Sputnik—the first salvo fired in the human attempt to exploit the space medium—remain relevant as we seek to chart the proper course for the control and exploitation of the ultimate high ground.