Tag Archives: Space Race

Laika the dog

Laika the dog: the first animal in orbit

On the 3rd November 1957, Laika the dog became the first animal to enter orbit around the Earth when she was launched into space on board the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2.

Laika was never intended to return as the technology to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere had not yet been developed. However, the launch of a canine into space was seen by the Russian scientists as a precursor to human spaceflight in order to determine the effect of launch and prolonged weightlessness on a living passenger. Laika survived the launch, but died due to overheating as a result of a malfunction in the temperature control system.

Laika was a stray dog who was found on the streets of Moscow. Strays from Moscow were specifically chosen on the assumption that they had already learned how to deal with extreme temperatures and prolonged periods without food. However, Laika and two other dogs still had to undergo extension training ahead of the mission. This included long periods of time in cramped conditions, extreme G-forces on centrifuges, and exposure to loud noises to simulate the conditions of spaceflight.

Throughout the mission, scientists on the ground monitored data coming from sensors attached to Laika. The readings indicated significant stress, but she survived the launch and made four circuits of the Earth before dying of overheating. The exact cause of her death was only confirmed in 2002.

Laika’s death raised ethical questions about the use of animals in scientific research since the spacecraft was not designed to be retrievable. She was, therefore, knowingly sent a mission from which she would not return.

Kennedy’s announcement of a plan for manned moon landing

On the 25th May 1961, American President John F. Kennedy made the announcement to a joint session of Congress that he had set his sights on a manned moon landing before the end of the decade.

To many people, including some personnel at NASA, Kennedy’s address seemed ridiculous. The USA had only sent its first man into space 20 days earlier and, although Alan Shepard’s spaceflight aboard Freedom 7 was a huge success, the USSR’s Yuri Gagarin had already become the first man in space three weeks before that. Taking on the USSR at a technological game that they were already leading appeared reckless.

An underlying issue was that, as part of his election campaign, Kennedy had promised to outperform the Soviet Union in the fields of space exploration and missile defence. In his famed television debate with Richard Nixon, Kennedy had mocked the fact that Nixon was proud of the USA being ahead of the USSR in terms of colour television while trailing in terms of rocket thrust. Gagarin’s flight had proved to the world that the USSR was currently ‘winning’ the Space Race, and so put pressure on Kennedy to increase spending on the Apollo space program.  Having received a memo from Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson in which he reported that the USA was unlikely to ever outperform the USSR under the current spending arrangements, Kennedy launched the largest peacetime financial commitment ever made.

The $24 billion dollars did work, however, and Apollo 11 achieved Kennedy’s goal by landing on the moon on 20th July 1969.

Telstar and the first satellite TV broadcast

Overview of Telstar and the world’s first satellite TV broadcast

The world’s first satellite television broadcast took place on July 11th 1962 when the Telstar satellite relayed an image of a flag outside its base station at Andover Earth Station to the Pleumeur-Bodou earth station in France.

The 190 French technicians successfully tracked Telstar during the 20 minute period that Telstar was visible to both the USA and France and watched the broadcast at 47 minutes past midnight. The first public satellite broadcast took place almost two weeks later, on July 23rd.

Telstar was launched almost five years after the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was put into low Earth orbit by the USSR. For this reason Telstar is seen as being part of the Space Race between the USA and the USSR, but it’s interesting to note that Telstar was actually an international project to develop trans-Atlantic communication involving AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories and NASA in the USA as well as the GPO and National PTT who were responsible for communication technology in the UK and France respectively.

Telstar was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on the day before the first broadcast, with costs shared between the international partners. Telstar was therefore also the first privately sponsored space launch. However, despite partly being a product of the Cold War it was also a victim. High-altitude nuclear tests had created artificial radiation belts that overwhelmed the electronics on Telstar and led to irreparable damage that caused the satellite to completely fail nine months later. By the time it went out of service, Telstar I had relayed over 400 separate transmissions.