Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

DU hosts night of satellite gazing to commemorate Sputnik’s launch

It was a day that changed everything.

Oct. 4 marks 50 years from the day Americans looked up to find a Russian satellite, dubbed Sputnik, orbiting overhead. The curious crowded the streets and gazed into the night sky, and the country was launched into a race to outer space that would change everything.

Since that lone, beeping ball of metal circled the globe, space exploration has heralded countless changes in modern life. From missions to the moon and Mars, to the development of ballistic missiles and the orbiting Hubble telescope, soldiers and scientists have reaped the benefits. Meanwhile, consumers have enjoyed household products from the mundane (Velcro and powdered drink mixes) to the amazing (cell phones, fuel cells, miniaturized computers, satellite TV and global positioning handsets).

DU will host a 50th anniversary commemoration from 8 p.m.–10 p.m. at DU’s historic Chamberlin Observatory. The free event will include telescopic viewings of geosynchronous satellites and remarks from astronomy Professor Robert Stencel and Greg Anderson, president and CEO of Denver’s Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, among others. The public is welcome to attend.

Stencel, who was 7 years old that night in 1957 when he joined neighbors gazing up at the Milwaukee night sky to catch a glimpse of passing Sputnik, credits the satellite with sparking his interest in the sciences and his eventual career in astronomy. 

“I have to trace everything to Sputnik. That was an eye opener, and age 7 is such an impressionable age,” Stencel says. “For us, it was not just a light in the sky, it was the whole community coming out in the street, staring up …. Really, life was utterly transformed by that.”

DU Research Professor Robert Amme was a student at Iowa State, and was already involved in the theoretical discussion of satellites, when the Russians actually launched one. But instead of fear as many had of an orbiting Russian platform over the U.S. during the Cold War, Amme says he and his colleagues were filled with wonder and anticipation.

Calling it a scientific breakthrough second only to the harnessing of atomic energy, Amme says Sputnik and the ensuing era of space exploration and exploitation has led to huge advances in computers, medicine, military applications and communication.

“When I heard that Sputnik had been launched, I tuned into the frequency that was being used to broadcast that sound that Sputnik was broadcasting — that beep, beep, beep. There was this excitement, this scientific breakthrough,” Amme says. “I guess I was confident that we’d be right behind them and this was all that was needed to spark us … All of a sudden, we knew that we were going into space.”

Learn more about Sputnik and listen to a recording of the first signal broadcast from space at NASA’s Web site.

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