Sputnik 1: A Launch Into the Future

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For most people the question of what is the most important event of the 20th century is a very easy answer to give: They would probably say World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War or the Cold War. Indeed these events rocked history and changed the world at the time. However, there are many events in the 20th century that are often forgotten and their importance is lost, confined to long lost memories and the pages of history text books.

These hidden treasures had profound impacts on the development of society and yet they remain forgotten, pushed from memory in favour of other events. For me personally, I believe that the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union on October 4th 1957 was one of the most significant events of the 20th Century. Not only was it an epic launch upwards into the sky, it was also a great push outwards for science, for the Soviets, and for the world.

From the moment it was launched the world was changed. The launch paved the way for developments in science and was the spark for the famous Sputnik Crisis, where the US recognised the great achievement of the 1st artificial satellite in space but also realised the potential horrors of which the launch could provide.

The Soviets now had the potential to launch a nuclear warhead across the Pacific Ocean that had long protected the US west coast from potential attack, and this spurred the Americans on for the Space Race that was to ensue. The launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 led the US under President Eisenhower to establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act.

This is arguably the defining moment of space exploration history, but it would never have arisen had Sputnik 1 failed in its mission. Since its formation in 1958 NASA has gone on to achieve a remarkable level of scientific discoveries and developments on an unprecedented scale and it has Sputnik 1 to thank for this. In response to the achievement of the Soviets, the US declared the Space Race started and the path to history ready to be traversed with President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech in 1961 inspiring a generation not only in the US but around the world.

He declared that “if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” By simply examining the content of his speech Kennedy expressly references the launch of Sputnik 1 and the impact it had on the society of the time. The competition between the Soviets and the US to put a man on the Moon, one of the greatest technological developments of the 20th century arose as a result of Sputnik 1’s launch.

It is this moment in history that man set itself a goal and threw everything at it and eventually achieved it in 1969 when Apollo 11 carrying Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins. In the words of Kennedy “it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation.” I believe his conviction in this demonstrates the determination and unity of the world to push technological boundaries and strive to achieve, this kind of driving force, I believe has never been witnessed in history and this is why it is such an important, but regrettably underestimated.

The launch of Sputnik 1 not only led to many significant scientific breakthroughs it also impacted on the political position of the world. Whilst the world was plunged deep into the Cold War after 1945 Sputnik seemed to signify the triumphs communism over capitalism, but with the victory of the space race going to the US it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can suggest that this pointed towards the horizon telling of what was to come from the rest of the Cold War. I would argue that the victory of the space race solidified capitalist resolve and hammered home the message that the West could still deal a knockout blow at any point. Whereas the US threatened with nuclear weapons, the Russian’s struck back with science. When the Russian’s threatened with nuclear weapons the US struck back with science. Not only did Sputnik influence space exploration but it aided in the development of technologies at home and in everyday life.

The rise of the space age dawned the age or rapid technological development and left a legacy of luxury and convenience for us all. NASA has aided in the development things like scratch resistant lenses for sunglasses among other things, stemming from the need to protect space helmets from debris in space. They have aided in the development of shoe insoles, famously developed from the space boots of the Apollo 11 mission. However perhaps the most recognisable developments that we can thank the space race for is the unbelievably comfortable memory foam mattresses and the chilled taste of clean and clear water passed through water filters developed by the space missions.

So when you are enjoying a good night’s rest, thanking your memory foam mattress for the comfort it provides, or enjoy the deliciously chilled and filtered water from the Brita filter in your refrigerator you can look back and thank the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 for driving the world leading research and developing the remarkable technologies that made them possible.

Written by Brandon Ashford. Edited by Sam Toombs.