With a series of small beeps from a spiky globe 50 years ago Thursday, the world shrank and humanity's view of Earth and the cosmos expanded.
Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched by the Soviets and circled the globe Oct. 4, 1957. The Space Age was born. And what followed were changes to everyday life that people now take for granted.
What we see on television, how we communicate with each other, and how we pay for what we buy have all changed with the birth of satellites.
Communications satellites helped bring wars and celebrations from thousands of miles away into our living rooms. When we go outside, weather satellites show us whether we need to carry an umbrella or flee a hurricane. And global positioning system satellites even keep us from getting lost on unfamiliar streets.
Sputnik gave birth to more than mere technology. The threat of a Soviet-dominated space spurred the U.S. government to increase tenfold money spent on science, education and research. Satellite pictures of Earth inspired an embryonic environmental movement.
Spy and communications satellites also kept the world at relative peace, experts say. Just last week, scientists used commercial satellite images to document human rights violations in Myanmar.
When Sputnik was launched, the public thought a space future would consist of gigantic space stations and colonies on the moon and other planets. The fear was warfare in space raining down on Earth.
"The reality is that the things we expected did not come to pass, and the things that we did not fathom changed our lives in so many ways that we cannot even envision a life that's different at this point," said Roger Launius, senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
America got a taste of that in May 1998. Just one communications satellite malfunctioned. More than 30 million pagers went silent. Credit card payment approvals didn't work. National Public Radio and CNN's Airport Television Network went off the air in some places.
"The civilization we live in today is as different from the one that we lived in the mid-1950s as the mid-1950s were from the American revolution," said Howard McCurdy, an American University public policy professor. "It's hard to imagine these things happening without space. I guess I could have a computer, but I wouldn't be able to get on the Internet."
All thanks to an 184-pound metal ball with spikes shot into space by a country that doesn't exist anymore.
"The launch of Sputnik actually triggered heightened interest among the American people, not only in space, but in science, mathematics and education," said White House science adviser John Marburger. "It also opened up people's eyes to the possibility that space could actually be used for something."
It's amazing the technology that hostility and competition can breed. Where would we be now if not for the World Wars and the Cold War? I don't think we could even imagine!
Sputnik was not the original plan by the Russians... they used rockets from their ICBM program and threw together the simple little sphere with a radio transmitter in an effort to beat the USA to space. The only thing that they actually accomplished was to show the world that it could be done and that they did it first, and to broadcast the "Beep Heard Around the World."
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