On Oct. 4, 1957, a polished-metal sphere 2 feet in diameter with four antennae was launched by the Soviet Union into a low elliptical Earth orbit. It was called Sputnik I, and it became the planet’s first artificial satellite. This diminutive satellite broadcast its radio pulses for three weeks before its batteries went dead, but it orbited planet Earth for about three months before its decaying trajectory brought it back to burn up upon atmospheric re-entry.
I am old enough to remember the excitement that Sputnik I’s launch generated. With the global excitement (and headlines) caused by Sputnik I passing above us every 90 minutes, however, came the realization that the United States lost a big race in the Cold War with the Soviets. What was a time of scientific elation and political victory in the USSR became a feeling of gloom in this country because Americans could do nothing but watch the satellite orbit above.