Malaysian Recalls the Day the Space Age Began

Day the Space Age began
by Sangat Singh
NST Online

SANGAT SINGH remembers the moment 50 years ago when Man placed the first object to orbit around Earth. IT was a defining moment in the history of the world. Fifty years ago today, on October 4, 1957 at 19:28:04 GMT, the world was stunned when Sputnik 1 became the first man-made object to orbit Earth.

The Space Age had begun, with an eruption of blinding flames and the thundering roar of R7 rocket engines on the Kazakh steppes to put Sputnik 1 into orbit.

The first signals were picked up by a BBC radio operator shortly after midnight GMT when he heard a strange beep-beep-beep that was rapidly fading and drifting in frequency.

The conclusion: signals were coming from an artificial space satellite. Sputnik (“traveling companion of the world”) entered the lexicon of world languages to define the Soviet Union’s spectacular feat.

Hundreds of thousands of radio amateur and shortwave listeners picked up signals from the spacecraft, as one of its transmitters operated at the frequency used by many counties for their standard time signals.

Many others looked up to the skies through binoculars and telescopes to try to sight Sputnik as it passed overhead.

Malaysians were also a part of that history when signals were picked up by radio amateurs D.D. Devan (call-sign 9M2DD), and Leslie Rao at the Telecoms Department monitoring station at Cochrane Road, Kuala Lumpur.

When news of Sputnik’s success swept the world, the initial American reaction was more of awe than shock. They had been beaten. The rug had been pulled under their feet, especially as President Dwight D Eisenhower had announced, two years earlier, that the United States would launch an artificial satellite in 1957, the International Geophysical Year of the world’s scientists.

Sputnik became a rude “wake-up” call and created an urgency in the US to recover supremacy. The “Space Race” began.

Sputnik 1 was an aluminum 58.5cm (22-inch) sphere with four whip antennas and weighed 82.5kg (182 pounds). It travelled at 29,000 kilometres an hour in an elliptical orbit 800km above the Earth, circling the planet every 96 minutes. It carried a small radio beacon that beeped at regular intervals and could by means of telemetry verify exact locations on the earth’s surface.

The initial announcement in the Soviet newspaper Pravda was almost a casual announcement. But the next day’s New York Times carried a three-line banner headline on the front page hailing the Soviet achievement. The father of the Soviet space programme Sergei Korolev told his colleagues after their triumph: “Congratulations, the road to the stars is now open”.

It was to lead to the Moon (US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on the Moon in 1969), all the planets of the Solar System – and to infinity, through the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft which have left the Solar System.

Happy 50th anniversary, Sputnik.

Sangat Singh has been a licensed amateur radio operator (call-sign 9M2SS) since 1962. Hehas been tracking satellites for 25 years and served as a member of the Malaysian Government’s Space Committee under Datuk Prof Dr Mazlan Othman.

He will be running the satellite ground station at Planetarium Negara under the call sign of 9M2RPN and will establish radio link with the International Space Station and have school children talk to the Angkasawan.