On October 4, 1957, America got a wake-up call.
Russia had launched a satellite into space, Sputnik-1.
It was put into a low earth orbit and could be seen from Earth throughout each of its 96.2-minute orbits.
It was a sphere, 23 inches across.
It sent beeping radio signals back to Earth for 22 days, until October 26, 1957, when the battery on its transmitter ran out.
RCA engineers recorded it and drove the recording to New York City so it could be broadcast over the radio.
Meanwhile, amateur student ham radio operators at Columbia University, who had been advised by the American Radio Relay League what frequency to turn to, recorded the radio signal and became the first to broadcast it to the public over the university’s FM radio station.
It fell toward Earth on January 4, 1958, burning up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The last remaining piece, a metal plate preventing contact between the batteries and transmitter, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
The race had begun on December 17, 1954 when Russia’s Minister of Defense Industries started exploring the possibility of launching a satellite, which he was advised by their premier space engineer was a necessary step in rocket development and interplanetary communication.
On July 29, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, through his press secretary, announced that the U.S. would launch “small Earth circling satellites” to celebrate the International Geophysical Year (IGY) between July 1, 1957 and December 31, 1958.
Four days later, Russia announced they would be launching a satellite as well.
The IGY was the March 1950 brainchild of several scientists, including James Van Allen, subsequently of Van Allen belt fame.
They hoped to get worldwide scientists cooperating again, after Stalin’s rein had chilled relations among scientists.
They modeled it after previous International Polar Years in 1882-83 and 1932-33.
What was the result?
The U.S. launched the third space satellite on February 1, 1958, after Russia launched a second one on November 3, 1957.
The U.S. established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), later renamed DARPA, to study advanced scientific devices.
Computer networking was spawned by their research, as well as predecessors to the Internet and the graphical user interface.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created on July 29, 1958.
The Van Allen radiation belt was discovered, meaning space missions that traveled beyond low-Earth orbit had to be shielded from this radiation to protect their electronic equipment and human passengers.
A combined British and American survey of the Atlantic revealed mid-Atlantic ridges, confirming plate tectonics and subsequently their role in earthquakes.
Scientists established 15 mirrored World Data Centers in various countries so that all scientists would have access to the data collected in IGY, to make sure there was not a repeat of the loss of data from the 1932-33 International Polar Year due to World War II.
Seven of the data centers are in the U.S.
A number of research stations were set up in Antarctica, including the January 1957 establishment of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the first permanent structure in Antarctica.
It survived for 53 years, until it was demolished for safety reasons in December 2010 because it was sinking into the ice.
The Antarctic Treaty established the Antarctic for peaceful and scientific uses only.
The Outer Space Treaty, in effect on October 10, 1967, bans the use of the moon for anything but peaceful purposes.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru