Electronic Design

Engineering Sputnik

While Sputnik’s steady stream of radio-signal beeps broadcast the Soviet’s early prowess in space exploration, the creation of the first man-made satellite had long remained a state secret. On the 50th anniversary of Sputnik's launch, the world knows much more about the satellite's engineering — from the development of ballistic missiles and the construction of the 180-pound antennaed orb to the ego of state scientists and politicians. “We learn \[the engineering details\] much later,” says Anthony Curtis, professor of mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and author of several books on Space. “That’s why \[the Soviets\] accomplished a number of firsts — because they were so secretive, because they were pushing ahead even before \[the official\] Space Race.” Sputnik 1 was launched Oct. 4, 1957 atop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), evidence that the Space Race was actually born of the weapons race. The satellite was 23 inches in diameter and circled the earth every 98 minutes, relaying a 20MHz to 40MHz radio wave signal via a one-watt transmitter. Its “chief designer” was Sergei Korolev, head of the Soviet spaceflight program — though some researchers say a different scientist was the quiet brain of the operation. “The unacknowledged saint is Mikhail Tikhonravov, who really devised Sputnik,” says William E. Burrows, professor of journalism at New York University and also an author of several books on the Space Age. “Korolev gets all the credit because he designed the first intercontinental ballistic missile,” that launched Sputnik into orbit, Curtis says. “\[Tikhonravov\] is obscured because Korolev became the renowned figure in the engineering world.” There’s no doubt Korolev’s ICBMs were vital to getting Sputnik off the ground. The Soviets had been hard at work on versions of German V-2 ballistic missiles, and began engineering the R-7 in 1954. A liquid-fuel engine powered the 111-foot, 300-ton rocket. At the time, Tikhonravov was hard at work on a study regarding the feasibility of spaceflight — the evidence Korolev needed to have his dreams of spaceflight actualized. Opportunity came when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev figured out that launching the first satellite could flex the U.S.S.R.’s political muscles. Khrushchev gave the space program the ok in January 1956, promising to launch a satellite during the newly-instated “international geophysical year,” a worldwide scientific collaboration to study earth from 1957 to 1958. Korolev and Tikhonravov went to work on “Object D,” a large satellite that was ultimately replaced since they feared they couldn’t complete it quickly enough. Tikhonravov suggested creating a satellite that was “a little lighter and a little simpler,” and Sputnik was born. Its main task would be to identify the density of high atmospheric layers and provide data on radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere. With the first successful launch of the R-7 ballistic missile on Aug. 21, 1957, the Soviets prepared for a Sept. 17 launch to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of Russian spaceflight. Tsiolkovsky, a schoolteacher, devised theories that laid the groundwork for the Soviet space program. The launch didn’t go off that day, but on Oct. 4, 1957, Sputnik lifted off at 10:28 pm Moscow time. Within an hour-and-a-half, the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik’s radio transmitter could be picked up by anyone from government agencies to amateur ham operators. “Americans were horrified,” Curtis says. “It really squashed our ego.” Yet it stroked the egos of the Soviet scientists, however quietly: their identity would remain secret, even when organizations as prestigious as the Nobel Prize Committee inquired. Khrushchev refused to identify such valuable members of his regime. “\[The Soviets\] were desperately afraid that the CIA would kill \[Korolev\],” Burrows says. “And you have to remember, \[the engineers involved\] were every bit as egotistical as Hollywood stars today.” Nikita Khrushchev’s son Sergei Khrushchev said his father kept the identity secret to soothe some of the ego. If the scientists thought Korolev was getting all the credit, they might refuse to work with him, which would be detrimental to the space program, Sergei Khrushchev wrote in an editorial. “A well-organized team would collapse like a house of cards, and the hopes for future space research and missile design would be dashed,” he wrote. As Korolev, Tikhonravov, and a team of other state scientists went unsung, Sputnik continued beeping for about three weeks after its launch, until its silver-zinc batteries ran out. The little silver ball burned up while reentering the atmosphere on Jan. 4, 1958, but its beeps rang in the ears of U.S. citizens for much longer. Its call set off the Space Race, raising national awareness of science and thrusting scores of people into successful engineering careers. Those engineers would go on to send humans to the moon, set up an International Space Station, and forge other accomplishments initially made possible by some of the U.S.S.R.’s best-kept secrets.

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