With a series of small beeps from a spiky globe 50 years ago today, the world shrank–and humanity’s view of Earth and the cosmos expanded. Education, too, was forever changed–from an initial push to improve math, science, and technology education (echoes of which can be heard again today), to the ability of schools to reach students across the globe.
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.
How we teach in many classrooms, 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 classrooms and living rooms. Before we go outside, weather satellites show us whether we need to carry an umbrella–or declare a snow day. And global-positioning system (GPS) satellites keep us from getting lost on unfamiliar streets, and even track the location of our school buses.
Sputnik gave birth to more than mere technology. The threat of a Soviet-dominated space spurred the U.S. government to increase tenfold the money it 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 (also known as Burma).
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. And classes were canceled for thousands of students who took part in distance-education programs.
“The civilization we live in today is as different from the one that we lived in [during] 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.”
And it all started with a 184-pound metal ball with spikes shot into space by a country that doesn’t exist anymore.
Because Sputnik was launched by a centralized communist government, people feared that space would help totalitarianism, said Georgia Tech University history professor Steve Usselman.
However, satellites “clearly undermined state authority, particularly national authority,” Usselman said. “It’s taken us in exactly the opposite direction.”
As satellites went commercial, they spurred on financial markets and opened up information to people across the globe–which is not what centralized governments want, Usselman said.
Spy satellites also enabled countries to keep an eye on their enemies.
“Except for crazy guys in airplanes, nobody can pull off a sneak attack,” McCurdy said. “I think it made the world much less dangerous than it was in 1956.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 said that it was thanks to satellites that “we know how many missiles the enemy has and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were doing things we didn’t need to do. We were building things we didn’t need to build. We were harboring fears we didn’t need to harbor.”
Weather satellites now give people an accurate view of threats from nature, as well as vastly improved everyday forecasts, said Keith Seitter of the American Meteorological Society. They save lives when hurricanes approach, giving days of notice instead of hours.
“It’s very hard to be surprised these days with the kind of data we have available with satellites,” Seitter said. “Certainly 50 years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
In television, satellite communications let upstart networks such as HBO, CNN, and ESPN develop and feed cable systems via satellite. That brought world events live to people around the globe. But it also allowed people to isolate themselves with niche channels, Usselman said.
Henry Lambright, a professor at Syracuse University, said satellites have had practical benefits, but “the more important benefits are looking at Earth as a whole and looking outward at Earth in the cosmos.”
Initial pictures of Earth from space, especially Apollo images from the moon, were embraced by an environmental movement to show how fragile the planet is.
The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and others have given people views of the universe that not only go trillions of miles away, but billions of years back in time.
“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.”
Hear Sputnik’s beeps
NASA history office’s examination on the societal impact of the Space Age
The Smithsonian Institution on Sputnik