Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Battle Cry of Sputnik

Impressive as the achievements of Piccard and others were, balloons could never move beyond the frontier of space. They needed the earth’s atmosphere to loft them.
After the war, scientists in America and the Soviet Union began experimenting with
so-called sounding rockets developed from the V-2s, in part to probe (sound) the upper atmosphere. While a sounding rocket was accelerated to speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour, it would run out of fuel by about 20 miles up.

This acceleration gave the rockets sufficient velocity to continue their ascent to about a hundred miles, after which the rocket fell to Earth. Any instrumentation it carried had to be ejected, parachuted to safety and recovered, or the information had to be transmitted to a ground station by radio before the rocket crashed. The goal of rocket science at this point was not only to reach higher altitudes, but to achieve a velocity that could launch an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth. Imagine a rock thrown into the air. The force of gravity causes it to travel in a parabola and return to the earth. If the ball were thrown at a greater and greater velocity, it would travel farther and farther until it returned to the earth. At some velocity, however, the rock would never return to the earth, but continually fall toward it (this is what the moon is doing: orbiting the earth). It was no mean trick to get a satellite going fast enough to make it orbit the earth.

A single-stage rocket, like the V-2, exhausted its fuel supply before it reached sufficient altitude and velocity to achieve orbit. It lacked the necessary thrust. To build a more powerful rocket required a return to Goddard’s idea of a “stepped” or staged rocket. A staged rocket jettisoned large parts of itself as fuel in each lower part—or stage—ran out. Thus the rocket became progressively less massive as it ascended, both by burning fuel and by discarding the empty fuel tanks.

During the early and mid-1950s, there was much talk of putting a satellite into orbit, and both the United States and the Soviets declared their intention to do so. In the Cold War atmosphere of the time, it came as a great shock to Americans when the USSR was the first to succeed, launching Sputnik I (Russian for “satellite”) into orbit on October 4, 1957. The 185-pound (83.25 kg) satellite had been lofted to an altitude of about 125 miles (201 km) and had achieved the required Earth orbital velocity of some 18,000 miles (28,980 km) an hour. The first Sputnik was a primitive device by today’s standards. It did nothing more than emit a radio beep to tell the world it was there. But it didn’t have to do more than that. The point was made, the Space Age was born, and the space race had begun.

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