On October 4th, 1957, my parents were six-week newlyweds living in a three-bedroom apartment at 603 East White Street, Champaign, Illinois. The rent was $68 per month, and that included heat and water. My mother was pregnant (with me – I would be born the following May), although she may not have known it yet. My father was an underclassman at the University of Illinois, in the College of Engineering (from which he would emerge with a B. S. in Mechanical Engineering in January of 1961). When the news flashed around the world that the Soviet Union had successfully launched the first artificial satellite, my father probably never dreamed that the direction of his entire professional career had just been settled.
Sputnik’s scientific objectives were, it turned out, quite modest. Fearful that his American counterparts would launch a satellite before he could, Chief Designer Sergey Korolyov had replaced the original payload design, designated “Object D” and heavily loaded with scientific instruments, with the much lighter “Simple Satellite No. 1” or PS-1 design. The new design was basically just a small pressurized sphere with three batteries and two radio transmitters inside. The antenna system consisted of four rods that extended to their full lengths once the satellite reached orbit. The “skin” of PS-1 was made of an aluminum alloy that was highly polished in order to maximize the satellite’s visibility in space from the ground.
But science aside, Sputnik really had just two objectives: to be seen, and to be heard. Months before, the Soviets had cannily released to the world’s ham radio community the two frequencies they intended to use (20.005 MHz and 40.002 MHz) without, of course, revealing what it was all about. Thus, soon after the news broke, everyone with a shortwave radio knew exactly where to tune. Recordings of Sputnik’s “beep-beep-beep” were quickly made and disseminated around the world. The sound of Sputnik instantly became iconic. Visually, although Sputnik was hard to spot in the nighttime sky with the unaided eye, it could easily be seen with any pair of binoculars, and millions did see it. So that part of it worked too. But it was the “beep-beep-beep,” as much as anything, that did it – that caused America to collectively “lose it.” Without this sound, and the fear it helped to inspire, there might have been no moon landings.