Birth of the Information Age

Oct 4 07

Birth of the Information Age

Paul Weinstein

It would be easy for me to dismiss the 50th anniversary of Sputnik‘s launch as unimportant in today’s world of terror attacks and social networks. After all the Cold War belongs to a bygone era along with everything else pre-9/11. Moreover, one of its most important battles, The Space Race, ended at the same time I was born, July of ’75, when three American astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts shook hands in Earth orbit. By then both the American and Soviet space programs had moved on, in the US to the Space Shuttle, in the USSR to Salyut. How could any of that still affect my daily life?

Yet it does and I can guarantee as you read this now it affects your daily life as well.

Red Star Rising?
The genesis story of the space age usual goes something like this, 50 years ago today, October 4th 1957; the Soviet Union ‘shocked’ the world by launching the world’s first artificial satellite. Why did the Soviets even wish to launch an artificial satellite in October of 1957 and why was the assumption that the Americans would be first?

The International Geophysical Year was an international scientific effort that started in July of 1957 to enhanced the study of eleven Earth sciences: aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, gravity, ionospheric physics, precision mapping, meteorology, oceanography, seismology and solar activity. How else could one enhance the knowledge of these sciences but by the no-longer just theoretical idea of launching an artificial satellite into Earth orbit? Since such an international effort included the Unites States, one of the two superpowers and the assumed scientific leader; it was the US that first developed and used the Atomic Bomb, the US that refined jet engines, rocket power and broke the sound barrier, thus the United States would lead the world into Earth orbit and Outer Space.

Even Chief Designer Sergei Korolev feared the Americans would beat him and his comrades. Using a military designed missile and rocket engine the Soviets saw their moment; the meeting of the IGY committee was scheduled for the beginning of October, at which time the American scientists intended to tell of their plans for space exploration. With the official go ahead from Soviet Party Leader Nikita Khrushchev Korolev and his team of engineers launched Sputnik from Kazakhstan, to the great surprise of the West.

Sputnik 1
Model, Sputnik 1

What does this all have to do with today’s every day life, other then the obvious GPS and satellite television? The Space Race of course escalated and by 1961 American had officially dedicated itself to landing a man on the moon in 10 years time. The moon became the target of the US space program because it was determined that neither the Soviets nor the Americans could roll out a rocket the next day with enough thrust to send a man or men to the moon and back.

This ‘edge’ in rocket development the Soviets had resulted from the larger atomic devices the Soviets had developed, compared to the Americans, requiring greater rocket power. In order to beat the Soviets at something required finding a goal that would nullify the Soviet’s booster advantage, hence the moon.

Weight, even from the very beginning, became the main issue for the American space program, even as Redstone rockets gave way to Atlas, which gave way to Titan, which were eclipsed by the Saturn rocket.

As the American military and civilian programs found themselves in need to reduce weight while enabling greater control a promising new technological development entered the scene, the integrated circuit



The integrated circuit is a miniaturized electronic circuit consisting mainly of transistors, themselves a recent technological development at that time, which is manufactured on the surface of an electively conductive material, usually silicon. Just as the Redstone rocket gave way to the Saturn rocket, the vacuum tube, begat the transistor, which gave us the integrated circuit, which, by the time 8 of 12 men landed on the moon and left, gave way to the microprocessor.

Meanwhile, as the need to shuffle information between locations grew, so did the need for the development of a reliable and standard communication network. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as ARPA, another government organization born in reaction to the launching of Sputnik, started a program designed to connect the growing collection of computers into a redundant, highly robust and survivable – of a nuclear attack – information swapping computer network known as ARPANET. Over the course of time other networks connected with the ARPANET, adopting the ARPANET’s TCP/IP packet switching protocols, which, in major part, gave way to today’s interconnection network of computers or Internet.

In other words, your computer, your computer’s network connection, this computer and this computer’s network connection all are by products of The Space Race, born 50 years ago today, with the launching of Sputnik.

Thanks to my father I spent this evening listening to Dr. Sergei N. Khrushchev, son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Roger Launius, PhD historian for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. discussing the history and impact of Sputnik.

Dr. Sergei N. Khrushchev made an interesting comment about the Soviet booster, that, if I understood him correctly (obviously English is not his native language) the Soviet nuclear device was not significantly heavier than the US, but that Korolov (or an engineer of his) miscalculated the weight by a factor of 3, thus the R-7 rocket was 3 times more powerful than it needed to be, leading to the Soviet’s early lead in rocket thrust.

Second, Dr. Roger Launius made an insightful comment about the shock and awe of the West, its was not Sputnik 1 alone that shook at the assumed scientific leadership of the US, as I noted both the Soviets and Americans had plans for an artificial satellite for the The International Geophysical Year, but the launch of Sputnik 1 and 2 just a few months apart and the public failure of the ‘American response’ with the explosion of a Vanguard satellite seconds after booster ignition feed a public fear of lost leadership. As Dr. Launius put it, in the direct American phrase, “three strikes and your out!”

Further Reading:
High-tech culture of Silicon Valley originally formed around radio by Tom Abate, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

We Shocked the World by Sergei Khrushchev

The Real Sputnik Story by By Sharon Begley, Newsweek

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