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  • Writer's pictureAeryn Avilla

Sputniks, Muttniks, & Kaputniks: The International Geophysical Year & the Dawn of the Space Age

The International Geophysical Year (IGY), which lasted from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958, was a global scientific endeavor to study the Earth, its poles, its atmosphere, and its interaction with the space environment. During the 18-month period, more than 4,000 research stations from 67 nations across the world studied eleven Earth science disciplines; aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, precision mapping, meteorology and radiation, oceanography, seismology, and solar activity. This post focuses on just the early satellites and how the IGY jump-started the Space Race.

American International Geophysical Year stamp depicting "The Creation of Adam"

The Creation of Adam depicted on an American IGY postage stamp (NOAA)

The International Geophysical Year has its roots in the International Polar Years (IPY), worldwide collaborations that studied Earth's polar regions. Interest in these areas in the late 1800s sparked competition among nations to explore and research the poles. The first IPY, which took place from 1882 to 1883, was conceived in 1875 by Karl Weyprecht, an Austro-Hungarian naval officer, and Georg Balthasar von Neumayer, the director of the German Maritime Observatory, and was organized through the International Meteorological Organization. The second IPY took place from 1932 to 1933, fifty years after the first, and preliminary planning began in 1927. A major advantage the second IPY had over the first was the accessibility of the airplane, one of the most significant inventions of the century, for transportation to and from the poles.

American and Soviet scientists in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year

American and Soviet scientists in Antarctica during the IGY (Rodnikov via this link)

The International Geophysical Year's official logo
The IGY's official logo (Public Domain)

Fast forward to April 1950. Physicist James Van Allen of the John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory and his wife Abigail hosted a dinner party at their home in Silver Spring, Maryland for Van Allen's colleagues. They discussed holding a third International Polar Year with a greater focus on the emerging disciplines of computer science and space science. In May 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) established the Special Committee for the International Geophysical Year, under which the third IPY would take place as well. Unlike the previous IPY's, which spanned one full calendar year, the IGY covered an 18-month period— July 1957 to December 1958— to "encompass an entire year in both of Earth's hemispheres" (Uri, 2022). These dates also coincided with the next solar maximum, or the period of increased activity during the sun's eleven-year cycle.

Up until this point, the Cold War had frozen the free exchange of information and political relations across all continents. However, Joseph Stalin's death in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev's subsequent "de-Stalinization" opened the gates for collaboration between the Soviet Union and the free world. In fact, one of the goals of the IGY was the exchange of scientific data across international borders since a lot of data acquired during the 1932 IPY was lost due to World War II. 67 countries around the globe participated in the IGY, with one notable exception being the People's Republic of China, which was protesting against the involvement of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Belgian physicist and meteorologist Marcel Nicolet served as Secretary General.

James Van Allen holding model Juno rocket

Van Allen holding a model Juno I rocket, the launch vehicle for Explorer 1 (Our Iowa Heritage)

One additional focus to the eleven disciplines listed earlier was the development of rockets and satellites. On July 29, 1955, the United States made an announcement that would change the course of history: The country planned to launch "small Earth circling satellites" as part of the American contribution to the IGY. Only four days after President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Press Secretary James C. Hagerty made the declaration, Soviet scientist Leonid I. Sedov announced at the Sixth Congress of the International Astronautical Federation in Copenhagen, Denmark that the Soviet Union intended to do the same in the "near future".

The US had military branches competing for satellite development and launch while the Soviet Union formally approved a single program in January 1956. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev designed a large scientific satellite as his country's contribution to the IGY he code named Object D. As the project experienced delays, he was directed to launch a much simpler satellite to beat the Americans to orbit. The result of this crash program was a polished metal sphere 23 inches (58 cm) in diameter named Sputnik. Launched on October 4, 1957 atop an R-7 booster, the satellite remained in orbit for three months. Even though its only function was transmitting a "beep-beep" to Earth, Sputnik's success sparked massive interest in space exploration and technology all over the world. The Space Race had begun.

It was followed by Sputnik 2, the first spacecraft to put a living creature into orbit on November 3. Its payload was a stray dog named Laika, and her fate has since been used to debate the ethics of animal testing in the name of scientific advancement.

A technician working on Sputnik 1 ( | Laika in her Sputnik 2 compartment before launch (NASA)

In the meantime, the United States' Naval Research Laboratory was developing the Vanguard satellite. Approved by President Eisenhower in 1955, the Vanguard Satellite Program was a civilian project aimed at launching one or more Earth orbiting satellites before the IGY was over. The first Vanguard satellite, Vanguard 1A, was an aluminum sphere 6.4 inches (16.3 cm) in diameter. After the success of Sputnik 2, the US made the bold decision to attempt its own satellite launch onboard the next available Vanguard rocket, which had not finished its series of test flights. The infamous Vanguard TV-3 mission carrying what could have been America's first satellite launched from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex-18 on December 6, 1957. At T minus 0, the booster ignited and began to rise but after about 2 seconds, and rising approximately 4 feet (1.2) off its pedestal, the rocket lost thrust and fell down onto the pad. At that moment, the fuel tanks ruptured and exploded, destroying the rocket and severely damaging the launch pad. The satellite was hurled away from its launch vehicle and landed on the ground a short distance away, its transmitters still sending out a beacon signal.

The exact cause of the disaster was never determined, but it was likely due to a fuel leak between the fuel tank and the engine. The failure of Vanguard TV-3 was a humiliating blow to the United States' reputation. Domestic news agencies published newspapers detailing the catastrophe, many with headlines including plays on the name of "Sputnik" such as "Kaputnik", "Flopnik", "Dudnik", and "Stayputnik".

Video of the Vanguard TV-3 explosion (YouTube)

Fortunately for the US, Vanguard was not the only satellite program in development. Even though Project Vanguard was chosen over the US Army's Project Orbiter in 1955, Project Orbiter was revived as the Explorer program after the launch of Sputnik to catch up with the Soviet Union. The Explorer 1 satellite was 80 inches (6.66 feet or 2 meters) in length and designed and built in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Its launch vehicle was the Juno 1, a modified Jupiter-C missile developed by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. The primary scientific instrument on Explorer 1 was a cosmic ray detector designed to measure radiation. It was developed under the direction of James Van Allen, the same physicist who proposed a third International Polar Year. He theorized the existence of charged particles trapped in Earth's magnetic field. These belts were confirmed by a later satellite and named the Van Allen Belts in his honor. Launching on January 31, 1958 from Launch Complex-26 on Cape Canaveral, Explorer 1 became the first successful American satellite. The most significant scientific achievement of Explorer 1 was the discovery of the two Van Allen Belts.

William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun holding a replica Explorer 1 satellite

(l-r) William Pickering (director of JPL), James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun (designer of the Jupiter missile family) holding a model of Explorer 1. A model Juno 1 rocket stands to the far right (NASA)

Vanguard 1 was the next successful American satellite and the first satellite to be solar powered (Vanguard 1B and Explorer 2, the next two satellites chronologically, were failures). Launching on March 17, 1958, Vanguard 1 is the oldest man-made object in space and is estimated to remain in orbit for another 200 years. The satellite revealed that Earth is not perfectly spherical but rather pear-shaped. It achieved the three goals of the Vanguard Satellite Program: launching one or more Earth orbiting satellites before the IGY was over, studying the effects of the space environment on artificial objects, and obtaining geodetic measurements of the Earth. Vanguard 1 was identical to Vanguard 1A and was called "the grapefruit satellite" by Nikita Khrushchev. a It was succeeded by Explorer 3, which helped confirm the existence of the Van Allen Belts. The other four Vanguard satellites launched in 1958 failed.

John P Hagen with Vanguard satellite

Project Vanguard director John P. Hagen with Vanguard (NASA)

The Soviet Union's only launch of 1958 was Sputnik 3, the realization of Korolev's Object D satellite. It launched on May 15 and carried twelve instruments to study Earth's upper atmosphere, magnetic fields, radiation, and cosmic dust. It was also immensely heavy for satellites of the era, weighing nearly 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg). Unfortunately, the onboard tape recorder failed shortly after launch.

In April, the United States responded to the success of Sputniks 1 and 2 with a series of Congressional hearings that recommended the country's future space efforts be conducted by a civilian agency. Sputnik 3 provided momentum for the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act in July and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began operations on October 1.

Russian diagram of Object D/Sputnik 3

Russian diagram of Object D/Sputnik 3 (RKK Energia)

The final successful satellite of the International Geophysical Year was Explorer 4, which launched on July 26, 1958 and studied the effects of nuclear explosions on the Van Allen Belts. It was in orbit during three Operation Argus launches, low-yield, high-altitude nuclear weapons tests conducted by the Defense Nuclear Agency over the South Atlantic Ocean.

The failed launches after Explorer 4 were of the first Pioneer probe (sometimes called Pioneer 0), Explorer 5, Vanguard 2D, Pioneer 1, Beacon 1, Pioneer 2, and Pioneer 3.

NASA illustration of the Van Allen Belts

NASA illustration of the Van Allen Belts (NASA)

The Sputnik crisis was a period of public anxiety in the West that followed the launch of Sputnik 1 about the perceived technological gap between the US and USSR. The public was unaware that satellite launches of both nations were planned activities of the International Geophysical Year, so when Sputnik was reported to be successful, it sparked panic. Though it triggered the creation of NASA the following year, it overshadowed other activities of the IGY. In the scientific community, however, Sputnik was "applauded as a breakthrough event in healthy scientific competition" (NOAA).

Front page of the New York Times the day after the successful launch of Sputnik 1

The New York Times front page the day after Sputnik launched (Public Domain)

World Data Centers (WDC) were established to house the large volume of information gathered during the IGY and make its findings available worldwide. The WDC system was developed in April 1957 and divided into three physical centers; WDC A was hosted in the US, WDC B made its home in the Soviet Union, and WDC C was subdivided among western Europe, Japan, and Australia. In 2008, the ICSU World Data System was created to combine and update the World Data Centers and the Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical Data Analysis Services.

The International Geophysical Year served as the framework for future international agreements, notably the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, as well as the fourth IPY which took place from 2007 to 2008. It also directly led to the creation and ratification of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, replacing the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics with NASA. The IGY spawned great enthusiasm for advancements in technology and international scientific cooperation, even during a period of intense political tension. Derivatives of the very first satellites and space launch vehicles are still used today in man's conquest of space nearly seventy years later.

Space poster from an IGY outreach booklet

Space poster from an IGY outreach booklet (National Academy of Sciences)

Author's note: Thanks for reading and be sure to like and share this post!



Intellectual Properties that I don't own

  • "Sputniks and Mutniks" by Ray Anderson & The Home Folks, 1958


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