In the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, October 12, 1957, a cold north wind blew through the streets of Baltimore. The temperature hovered around 40 degrees, but many of the people standing outside weren’t concerned about the chilly air.
They trained their binoculars on the sky. A small, glowing object streaked through the darkness and changed their world forever. Footage shot from down below by a local TV cameraman ended up on the national news.
The Russians, just a few days earlier, launched Sputnik 1, Earth’s first artificial satellite. It circled our planet every 98 minutes, traversing the United States seven times a day, and was visible with binoculars just after sunset and just before dawn.
But Sputnik 1 was small, about the size of a basketball. Successfully putting the satellite in orbit was important, but it held nothing more than a radio.
Then came Sputnik 2, launched a month later.
This satellite weighed more than 1,000 pounds and contained a living animal, a dog named Laika, a stray from the streets of Moscow that became the first animal to orbit Earth. Her presence far above, and circling at thousands of miles an hour, put the Russians firmly ahead of the U.S. in extraterrestrial milestones. And scared the snot out of everyone!
Could they spy on us?
Could they launch missiles from up there?
No one knew exactly what it meant for our adversary’s capabilities, but we knew that we couldn’t wait around to find out.
The U.S. launched its first unmanned satellite just months later in January 1958. The space race was born.
We all know about Neil Armstrong taking the first human step on the moon in 1969 and the many accomplishments of NASA, but sometimes we fail to see how such accomplishments dramatically improved our lives, even if they came at great cost.
It can come down to something as simple as the joy in finding an out-of-the-way historical marker, or as complicated as determining your position in the middle of the ocean.
Road directions used to be the domain of those who could read a map and apply that knowledge to the real world. It required combining the skills of memorization, visualization, and depth perception. Some people had it, many did not.
The dynamic could make family road trips entertaining, or an exercise in frustration that ended in tears, depending on who sat in the copilot’s seat. As my family traveled when I was a kid in the 1970s, it became a point of pride to provide accurate directions as we traversed the country.
This skill was highly valued in our household because our father was a captain in the merchant marines who had learned to determine his location on the high seas through celestial navigation. It seemed cool to use a sextant to measure the angle of the earth to known stars, but that wasn’t how he estimated his position when at work.
At the time, he used a radio navigation system called Loran-C, which was a further iteration of the original Long Range Navigation system used in World War II.
Loran used hyperbolic, low-frequency radio signals and a receiver to allow triangulation navigation. It required the installation of emitter stations around the world, and either receiving radios used with maps to estimate coordinates or special radios programmed to spit out longitude and latitude. It was cumbersome.
But the military had something else.
As Sputnik 1 flew by, U.S. engineers estimated its position by listening to the signal emitted by its radio transmitter. This prompted the reverse question: Could you estimate your position on Earth using signals from known satellites?
The answer was “Yes!”
But first those satellites had to exist.
In the 1960s, the U.S. military used satellites to pinpoint the location of submarines, but the process was still inconvenient. In the 1970s, the U.S. government decided to put effort into a satellite-based system for navigation and in 1978 launched the first Navigation System with Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR). It was considered a state secret and not available for commercial use.
That changed in 1983 when the Russians shot down a South Korean airliner that accidentally veered into its airspace. President Reagan decided to make GPS navigation available for free to anyone who could receive the signal.
Once equipped with GPS receivers, anyone within range of several satellites could know where they were, at least in terms of longitude and latitude. The system rolled out in 1989 and became fully operational in 1993.
Just Look Where We Are Now
Today we use GPS in our smartphones to guide us to a local bar, a kid’s soccer game in an unfamiliar town, or even an airport or shipping port on the other side of the planet.
Imagine the savings in fuel, vehicle wear and tear, and even family relations from having GPS! And it all exists because NASA launches satellites equipped with timing and range capabilities.
An interesting part of the arc of GPS is that many of the original devices, produced by companies like Garmin, TomTom, and Magellan, have fallen out of favor. Most people don’t need two GPS-enabled gismos, and we’re going to keep our phones.
It just shows that even though a company is on the cutting edge of technology, it can still be cut out of the value chain.
I love stories about how exploration, whether out of fear, wonder, or greed, leads to improvements in our quality of life. These changes give us a chance to live better, and can also give us an opportunity to invest in the next big thing.
We’re exploring these themes, and more, at Dent Research’s fifth annual Irrational Economic Summit, October 12-14 in Nashville, Tennessee.
We’ve lined up guest speakers that include Stephen Sandford, who spent 28 years as a NASA engineer before taking a leadership role at the NASA Langley Research Center. He was nine years old when Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon, and now says we’ll have a base there in the near future.
And while often we look to the skies, there’s just as much to uncover back on Earth, notably under the seas. Mark Gordon of Odyssey Marine Exploration will talk about that. (Think pirate ships and minerals on the ocean floor.)
Our goal is to take you out of the box of conventional thinking, and possibly identify the next wave of technology that will change our lives, and lead to profitable investments. Just like Sputnik ultimately did 60 years ago.
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P.S. What are your memories of the great space race? I’d love to hear them. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or let’s catch up in Nashville.