October 2022
The Backyard Astronomer
Adam England

Sputnik I and the October Sky

October 4, 1957 was truly the beginning of a new age. While humans had spent the previous few decades dreaming of, dabbling in, and testing their mettle in the high reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, the launch of Sputnik I on that day was the true harbinger of what was to come on the new frontier beyond Earth.

The Soviet-made sphere was roughly 23 inches in diameter with a mass of 83.6 kg/184 lbs, its one watt of power provided by three silver/zinc batteries designed to last just two weeks. It was programmed to issue a series of beeps on various frequencies, encoded to provide information about temperature and pressure around the world’s first artificial satellite.

Sputnik I replica
, National Air and Space Museum

A team of engineers working on the project watched and waited with apprehension for more than 90 minutes after it launched to make sure Sputnik survived a full orbit, and only then called Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to announce their success with the first human-made object to orbit the Earth.

By the following night amateur radio operators and astronomers joined professional scientists and engineers around the world to track the satellite’s path across the sky. The American Radio Relay League — the largest association of amateur radio operators in the US — quickly issued directions to its members around the country and the world on how to tune in to hear the signals from space. Whole communities gathered outdoors, with warm beverages and craned necks, hoping to witness the dawn of the Space Age.

The 1999 film October Sky relates the story of one such community. Coalwood, West Virginia was a small mining town, not unlike hundreds of others dotting the central Appalachian region. Then-14-year-old Homer Hickam, Jr. was one such observer, and seeing Sputnik fly overhead in the West Virginia sky that week was a catharsis to a boy who was supposed to grow up and work the coal mines, like every other boy in Coalwood.

The Big Creek Missile Agency with one of their early rockets, courtesy Homer Hickam

A ragtag group of friends developed a new passion for rockets and the self-education that would be required to make them fly. The self-proclaimed Big Creek Missile Agency spent the next two and a half years learning to weld, teaching themselves calculus and trigonometry, destroying countless bits of their mothers’ borrowed kitchenware, and eventually winning the National Science Fair gold and silver medals in the field of propulsion.

To celebrate the 65th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik I and the beginning the Space Age, tune in to our podcast for the audio version of this article series and a special Backyard Astronomer interview with retired NASA engineer and co-founder of the Big Creek Missile Agency, Homer Hickam.

If you would like to learn more about the sky, telescopes, or socialize with other amateur astronomers, visit us at prescottastronomyclub.org or Facebook @PrescottAstronomyClub to find the next star party, Star Talk, or event.

Adam England is the owner of Manzanita Financial and moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, and interplanetary conquest consultant. Follow his rants and exploits on Twitter @AZSalesman or at Facebook.com/insuredbyadam.