What’s your Sputnik moment?

A couple of years ago, I was talking on the phone with my Mum. Nothing so unusual about that, you might think (unless you’re thinking that was the last time I talked to her, in which case I assure you I’m not quite that feckless) – except that she was sitting at home in the UK, and I was standing in the middle of a field in rural New Zealand, chatting to her on my mobile phone.
What’s quite awe-inspiring about this, when you think about it, is that people who emigrated to New Zealand in the 1960s will tell you that you that they were effectively cut off from the family they left behind in Britain; letters could take weeks or months to arrive, and telegrams were short and too expensive for most. Step forward 40 years, and I was able to travel in their footsteps to the opposite side of the globe, and still engage in a real-time conversation with the folks back home. Such are the scale, and pace, of the changes wrought by satellite technology.


The sheer pervasiveness of satellite communications and imagery in the modern world prevents, I think, the mere idea of a man-made object orbiting the Earth from inspiring much awe. Every day I see images like this (click on the images for their source):

kary_amo_2007254.jpg

Or this:

wafrica_amo_2007275.jpg

Or this:

OZONE_D2007-09_G%5E716X716.LSH.PNG

and whilst the pictures themselves may impress me, I often forget that the fact that we can take such pictures at all is equally amazing. This makes it hard to imagine what it must have been like for the people who were listening and wondering below as Sputnik 1 beeped its way across the sky 50 years ago. Sometimes, though, modern technology enables you to do something so amazingly cool that you finally grasp – if only for a second – how mind-blowing it must have been for those people back in 1957. For me, it was standing in the middle of a Kiwi field, talking to my Mum back in England.
Have you ever had a Sputnik moment?

Categories: general science

Comments (10)

  1. Heidi says:

    What would we do without satellites? I get it now, without satellites what would we have done for communication.
    My Sputnik moment, we share the same birthday.

  2. I actually have those moments every time I drive cross country (that’s the US, the only country I’ve had the privilege to traverse), maybe not 1957, but not that much earlier, and most of the western US would have been quite a trek.
    But for me I think it is still communications. My dad has been traveling to Africa regularly since I was in grade school. I remember how amazing it was to get letters from him (that would take weeks to show up), then the first time he could fax us single page letters, and now almost daily email updates. If he was doing this back in the 50’s or 60’s, he would essentially enter a correspondence free zone until he came home.

  3. Kim says:

    I think my Sputnik moment was watching the first moon landing. (I’m old enough to have seen it — but just barely! And besides, it was just yesterday on the geologic time scale! Though the moment was ruined when the other kids told me that I couldn’t be an astronaut because I was a girl.)
    But since then, actually, it’s Google Earth. About twelve years ago, I had an intro class on Earthquakes and Volcanoes do an exercise to try to get them to think about where and how frequently earthquakes occur worldwide. The US Geological Survey published a list of worldwide earthquakes every week, and I made the students look at the list and plot (by hand!) the locations of all the earthquakes.
    It was tedious. They absolutely shredded me in course evaluations. I didn’t use the exercise again.
    But, now, they could just go to the UGSG earthquake site and follow the link to the Google Earth .kml file… and they could see the same thing.

  4. Torbjˆrn Larsson, OM says:

    Any new type of tomography of animals or impressive objects such as Earth are still generally gee whiz cool.
    But I think the latest WMAP data set takes the cake. Seeing the information from (most of) the whole observable big bang process compressed into a single comprehensive yet detailed glance 2004, compared to that the big bang expansion was first observed in statistics from individual objects 1929. I’m pretty sure my late grand mother never accepted the idea.

  5. DeeDUbya says:

    I spoke to my Dad about this momentous event earlier. said it was said he was old enough to remember it being a disappointment cos all it did was go beep-beep! The luddite. We wouldn’t having been chatting by IM from different sides of the country if it wasnt for those scientists.

  6. whomever1 says:

    I was 9 at the time, and remember walking home from school talking about it. Which makes it probably the first national/international news event I can remember. But since we didn’t have instant world communication, I would have gotten my info from my parents telling me about a newspaper article, or from some talking head on 6:00 news. Though I’m pretty sure I saw a mock-up of the satellite too.
    By contrast, the landing on the moon was televised from the moon! Pure science fiction.

  7. Stefan says:

    It’s really hard to imagine a world without the benefits brought by satellites! I had a kind of “Sputnik moment” when I saw the first GPS navigator in a car and thought, wow, that looks like a gadget from Goldfinger, and it’s for real. On the other hand, I was quite amazed this summer when I looked out for Perseids and spotted quite a few satellites flying by within only a quarter of an hour. I did not expect that there are that many of them, and that some of them are easily visible to the naked eye.

  8. Stefan says:

    Sorry, I forgot to mention, you might be interested in this: Here is a link to the paper by Arthur C. Clarke, “Extra Terrestrial Relays”, where he explains the idea to use satellites in geostationary orbits for communication. It was published in October 1945 in the magazine Wireless World.

  9. Hank Roberts says:

    Chuckle. My Sputnik moment was delayed — it happened when I walked into a Seattle hardware store in 1970 and found, on a rack, in their original plastic bags, two Wham-O Pluto Platters, “The Toy of the Geophysical Year” — one blue, one gray — from 1957. Later versions were called ‘Frisbees’ — I’d neglected to buy one of the originals when I was eight years old, when they came out. Second chances are rare. I still have them. Maybe in another 50 years, someone can open the bags and see how they fly.

  10. vjb says:

    My sputnik moment was on the actually day, when in the 7th grade I walked into Mr. Winter’s homeroom and saw the word ‘SPUTNIK’ on the blackboard. Later that fall I made the most godawful papiermache model of a satellite for a science fair, and resolved to go into science/engineering as a career. As it happened, I did undergraduate in physics, then astrophysics in graduate school doing research at a NASA institute (for my dissertation I measured the temperature of the universe–rotational temperatures of diatomic molecules in cold clouds conveniently in front of bright OB stars–it showed that the CBR actually was blackbody as theorized). Then the Vietnam War intruded, making it nearly impossible to go on to a postdoc in the field, as NSF funding tanked. I had no particular talent for selling used cars or insurance, so muddled sideways into geochronology through a stint at a medical school, of all places, and ended up starting a business in lieu of a non-existent paying job. I now do primarily engineering of all sorts, highish-tech, in a comfortable niche market. My older son, who teaches remote sensing at a university, is the true product of my sputnik epiphany. He gave me a vintage Russian Sputnik watch last Christmas, and I am wearing it now.