As we struggle with decisions on the future of space, I decided it was a good time to offer a look back. Here, in four parts (one posted per day), is the human story behind the first satellites, as written by myself and Erika Lishock for QUEST magazine.
SPUTNIK: THE HUMAN STORY (PART ONE OF FOUR)
“Nothing ever built arose to touch the skies unless some man dreamed that it should, some man believed that it could, and some man willed that it must.” - Charles F. Kettering
Any engineer can tell you that the paradigm-shaking events that launched the Space Age 50 years ago involved a significant number of technological breakthroughs. But how did the Space Age really start? Was it the fervor of a nationalistic movement, or an educational institution, or a military-funded program that gave it birth and heralded its first faltering steps? Or did it start long before 1957 – in the minds and hearts of those who dreamed, and believed, and eventually willed it into reality? In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the human side of the timeline up to and through the pivotal first months of the new era.
The beginnings of the Sputnik story lie too far back to be traced, to the first humans who looked at the sky and wondered what lay high above them and whether they might someday reach it. As civilizations arose, the pieces of modern cosmology and physics began to form, divined by those who, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s phrase, “in high cold towers asked questions of the stars.”
In the 15th through 18th centuries emerged the great celestial mathematicians and physicists; Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who, through entire lifetimes of observation and unimaginably laborious hand calculations, turned speculation into theories, and numbers, and formulae: if an object reached an altitude of x above most of the atmosphere, and attained a velocity y parallel to the Earth’s surface, it would continue to “fall” around the earth; the result would be an artificial moon. By the nineteenth century, it was all possible in theory. In the twentieth, it became fact.
“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been built, there will step forth men to sail these ships.” - Johannes Kepler
And so we come to Konstantin Edvardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). Space visionary and pioneer of cosmonautics, the poor math teacher in rural Russia had been rendered totally deaf by scarlet fever at the age of 10, and because of this, never received any formal education. Inspired by the novels of Jules Verne, and driven by imagination and a will to prove himself despite his disability, Tsiolkovsky stayed up long nights working out the details of travel beyond the atmosphere. He created the rocket equation and calculated the velocities required for payloads and orbits. He came up with the idea of a large multistage rocket, a “rocket train,” the notion of a space station, and the use of hydrogen and liquid oxygen as booster fuel and oxidizer.
“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but we cannot live in the cradle forever.”
- Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Tsiolkovsky’s most famous pupil (though it’s not certain they ever met) was Sergey Pavlovich Korolev (1907- 1966). As a young aircraft engineer in his twenties, Sergey joined an amateur rocket enthusiast society led by the equally visionary Frederich A. Tsander. Korolev worked on rockets until 1938, when he became a victim of Stalin’s political purges, was unjustly accused of suspected political unreliability, and sentenced to imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag – a nightmare of cold, hunger, and death for most. His story would likely have ended there had he not been transferred two years later to a sharaga, a slightly less torturous work camp for political undesirables whose skills were nonetheless needed by the war effort. After the war, he took a lead role in developing missiles for the government that had imprisoned him. He built for the USSR the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7, which was later modified and eventually placed the first satellite into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957.
"I've been waiting all my life for this day!"
– Sergey Korolev at the launch of Sputnik 1
Further to the west, Hermann Oberth (1894 -1989) was born in what was then Austria-Hungary. He too, was inspired by the works of Jules Verne, and at age 14 was busily constructing model rockets. After serving on the Eastern Front during World War I, he began studies in physics. His 1922 thesis submitted to the University of Heidelberg was rejected because the topic - the use of rockets for space travel - was deemed impractical and outlandish. Undaunted, Oberth turned the thesis into a book, The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space. This work sparked widespread discussion of rocketry by academics and scientists who had previously ignored this immature field of technology. In 1930, Oberth fired the first test model of his own design for a liquid-fueled rocket engine. Working with him were some students from the Technical University of Berlin. One of them was named Wernher von Braun.
"This is the goal: To make available for life every place where life is possible. To make inhabitable all worlds as yet uninhabitable and all life purposeful." - Hermann Oberth
Wernher von Braun (1912 - 1977) was 18 at the time of Oberth’s test firing. The handsome young man with an aristocratic pedigree had already shown himself as both a promising engineer and a natural leader. In 1931, he helped Germany’s amateur rocket society, the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (VfR), launch its first liquid-fuel rocket. Three years later, the VfR was effectively absorbed by a branch of the Army Weapons Office, with von Braun and several other VfR alumni becoming civilian Army employees. Von Braun was the critical integrator, the first man who succeeded in wrapping the efforts of Oberth and Tsiolkovsky in steel on a scale large enough to make spaceflight truly viable. Always controversial as the lead inventor of the A-4 (or V-2), the first ballistic missile, mass-manufactured by concentration camp prisoners under horrific conditions, he came to the United States after the war. There he eventually became technical director of a crucial branch of American rocketry, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. As a note of interest, after Von Braun left Peenemunde for the United States, invading Soviet troops found a German edition of one of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's books on rocketry and space travel. It had been annotated throughout by Wernher von Braun.