On 4 October 1957 the United States was shaken to its very core. The latest blow in the Cold War had been struck, and this time it was the Soviets who were in the ascendant.
The Korean War may have ended with an uneasy stalemate four years earlier, but it was enough for the US to style the outcome as a partial victory back home. But now there was no denying it: the Soviets had done something the US never had. They had put an artificial satellite into space.
Sputnik 1 was the first object to ever breach the Earth’s atmosphere in a controlled fashion and the first to achieve what was only theorized up until that point: a stable orbit, travelling high above the American homeland with impunity. This was a catastrophe for the west.
What had it seen up there? Was there evidence of heaven, or hell, or aliens, or something completely unexpected. Surely the Soviets would know: in another shocking turn of events Sputnik was not silent. It was transmitting information back to the observers below.
The Americans could hear the message, but they had no way of understanding what it was they were hearing. It became an immediate priority to decipher the message: what was Sputnik telling the Soviets?
A Scientific Bonanza
In truth, Sputnik had already gifted any watching scientists with invaluable information. Observers from the ground had watched the launch vehicle pass through the upper atmosphere and gained a massive amount of practical telemetry and other data which could be put to use in their rocket programs.
Nor was any attempt made by the Soviets to disguise the signal from the little satellite. Any amateur radio operator could hear the series of beeps being transmitted from outer space. The Americans, who had watched the progress of the launch with extreme interest, captured every nuance of the message.
This was the start of what became known as the “Sputnik Crisis”. The Americans could not believe that Soviet technology was so decidedly in advance of their own, and the western world was thrown into crisis at this apparent gap in knowledge.
This was the start of the Space Race, leading to the creation of NASA the next year and starting a chain of events which would result in the Moon landings a little over a decade later. The American public was similarly fixated by this Soviet marvel, with the New York Times publishing 279 separate articles in October 1957 on Sputnik, an average of 11 a day.
So, did the Americans ever decipher the message? Their finest minds applied themselves to the task, but it seemed that the subtleties of the Soviet code eluded them. Sputnik was transmitting, but the United States could not decode the message.
It would be years before the secret of Sputnik 1 was revealed to the west. When they finally understood what the satellite was sending, the Americans were shocked at their incompetence and their mistakes.
Sputnik, you see, was not sending telemetry at all. The Soviet space program, throughout much of its history, was predicated on risk taking and incomplete understanding of the technology: it was far more important to be first than to be reliable.
Sputnik had nothing to say about the universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The series of beeps was simply that, an audible sound that anyone could hear which confirmed to the Soviets that their wild rocket ride into space had actually worked and that the satellite had survived the journey.
All Sputnik wanted to say was “here I am”.
Top Image: Sputnik was sending a signal back to Earth containing the first man-made signal from beyond our atmosphere, but the Americans were unable to crack the code. Source: Gregory R Todd / CC BY-SA 3.0.
By Joseph Green