What impact did Sputnik have

The "Sputnik shock" and its consequences

The beginning of space travel 50 years ago was a political shock: with the launch of the Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union, considered technically backward, surprised. His uninterrupted "Bip-Bip-Bip" from orbit triggered unprecedented fears in the West and above all in the USA.

In the midst of the Cold War, it wasn't just the fear of an attack that increased: the West was painfully made aware of the weaknesses of its educational system. An unprecedented reform was the result.

Russians were ahead of the game
In the second half of the 1950s, the conquest of space was already on the horizon. It was expected that the US would take this first step, but the USSR suddenly and unexpectedly won the race into space.

Sputnik, which literally means "companion", was a 83.6 kilo metal ball with a diameter of 58 centimeters and four rod antennas.

It only contained a radio transmitter that emitted a shortwave signal (20 MHz and 40 MHz). In a strongly elliptical orbit between around 200 and 900 kilometers altitude, Sputnik orbited the earth for three months before it burned up in the earth's atmosphere.

Humiliation for USA
Sputnik was just the beginning of a whole series of aerospace achievements with which the Soviet scientists and engineers drove their American competitors in front of them. Only a month later, the Soviets shot the dog Laika into space as the first living being, but the animal heroine did not return to earth as planned.

On the other hand, after his launch on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin landed safely in space as the first person and inflicted the next blow on American self-confidence.

Spectacular failure
The USA wanted to react quickly to Sputnik - and became a laughing stock: In front of the eyes of the world press on December 6, 1957, a US Navy rocket caught fire a few meters above the ground and fell back to earth.

US newspapers made fun of the fiasco with headlines like "Flopnik" and "Kaputnik". It was not until January that the US scientists managed to launch the Explorer satellite into space with the help of the German Wernher von Braun, who had already helped to design the V2 war rocket.

Educational Revolution in the United States
In July 1958, Congress passed the Space Act, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower had urged with warnings of the "very powerful threat" posed by Russian missile technology. Only a little later, on October 1st, NASA started its work.

At the same time, Eisenhower not only increased the military budget, but also revolutionized the US education system. With a dramatic increase in funding for education, not only was investment in research and science, but the school system was also turned inside out - natural science was more closely integrated into the curriculum.

Europe is also reacting
The "Sputnik shock" also reached Europe. Here, too, the inventories of the education system - albeit with some delay - were catastrophic. The German educator Georg Picht sketched an "educational catastrophe" in 1964, sparking a debate that was to lead to a fundamental reform of the educational system in Germany.

From the mid-1960s onwards, there were large-scale campaigns for education and numerous university reasons. At the same time, barriers to education were dismantled. Austria followed this policy in the early 1970s.

"Society forever changed"
"Sputnik changed society forever," writes the renowned science journalist Victor McElheny in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung":

"The drastic measures in education and science accelerated both microelectronics and biotechnology; the Internet and the revolution in genetic engineering are just two of the results we are seeing today. Sputnik has brought revolutions for billions of people who have never left the earth . "

"Cultural and historical turning point"
At the international conference "Under the sign of Sputnik" at the weekend in Berlin, they went one step further: In addition to the military-technical and scientific-political ones, a "cultural-historical turning point" was even identified there.

There is talk of a paradigm shift in the history of science and culture - and all of this triggered by a metal ball weighing almost 84 kilograms, which today, 50 years and technical revolutions incessantly later, would only be considered a heap of junk.