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The Domino Effect Of Sputnik

The date was October 4, 1957. I was five years old at the time, too young to know that the Space Age had arrived with the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik--the first artificial earth satellite--in a low orbit around our planet. What was the effect of this shocking event here in North America?

It caused panic, that’s what!

So, the Russians weren’t as backward as so many Westerners had first thought. Then again, from plans they had stolen from the American Manhattan Project, the Russians had entered the nuclear age with the detonation of their first atomic bomb only a few years before in 1949. Were they now planning to attack us from space? Some Americans thought the technology that had sent Sputnik into orbit could ultimately be used to launch long-range missiles directly at North American cities.

Sputnik I replica
Sputnik I replica at US National Air and Space Museum (US Public Domain)

Sputnik was the result of 10 years of Soviet research and tests. Fitted with two radio transmitters and four radio antennas that broadcasted radio pulses in steady blips, Sputnik was a basketball-sized 23-inch-diamater sphere composed of an aluminum-magnesium-titanium alloy weighing 185 pounds. Once in orbit at an altitude of 99 miles, it travelled 18,000 miles per hour and circled the earth every 96 minutes, providing the Russians with data on the earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere. It transmitted on 20.005 and 40.002 MHz and was picked up by amateur ham radio operators throughout the globe. The blips were also heard on radios and television sets. The Sputnik signals continued for 21 days, until the batteries ran out. But it kept on going, regardless. On January 4, 1958, after travelling some 43 million miles and completing 1,440 orbits, it burned up and fell from the sky.

That same October 4, 1957, Avro Canada had arranged a “launching” of its own at its aircraft plant in Malton, Ontario, outside Toronto. Over 13,000 guests including lots of media were invited to catch the first glimpse of the company’s new and costly pride-and-joy toy, the delta-winged CF-105 Avro Arrow fighter-interceptor that--once assembled in force--would protect us from the Cold War Russian bomber threat for decades to come. Unfortunately, this rollout event was overshadowed by Sputnik, which, as the weeks and months grew on, led directly to a new wave of foolish thinking here in Canada that costly manned interceptors were soon to be obsolete, making missiles the way of the future.

Meanwhile, just to show they weren’t one-shot operators, the Soviets sent up two more Sputnik satellites. A  1,100-pound  Sputnik II was launched November 3, 1957 with a dog aboard named Laika. It orbited for 200 days. A few months later, Sputnik III served as a scientific laboratory when it began its orbit May 15, 1958. Weighing an even-heavier 3,000 pounds, its greatest achievement was the discovery of earth’s outer radiation belts. It stayed aloft for two years.

Back on our continent, the Americans convinced our naive Conservative government, who were funding the Arrow project, that the American-built Bomarc missile would do just as good a job or better than the Arrow in defending our northern reaches for a lot less money. The Boeing Bomarc supersonic surface-to-air missile (SAM) was a long-range anti-aircraft weapon that could fly at Mach 2-plus and cruise at more than 60,000 feet. Testing for the 46-foot-long missile that weighed in at 15,500 pounds began as far back as 1946. By 1949, the US government had been impressed enough to issue a contract to Boeing.

Operational Bomarcs in New Jersey
Operational Bomarcs in New Jersey, October, 1960. Courtesy National Museum of USAF (US Public Domain)

Our Canadian defense department was soon faced with a terrible dilemma. They would have to either continue paying for the Arrow or buy the Bomarc. They couldn’t afford both, so they felt.  In a fit of insanity, they chose the Bomarc at an eventual total cost of $270 million.

So, on February 20, 1959, our Canadian “Day of Infamy” known as Black Friday, Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons and announced the sudden and severe cancellation of the Arrow and Iroquois engine (the Arrow power plant) program, sending 15,000 Avro employees immediately out of work, along with another 15,000 technicians employed by 2,500 subcontractors in the US and Canada. Overnight, 30,000 individuals were without jobs. Then, a year later, the Diefenbaker government flip-flopped and paid American contractors $500 million to replace the Arrow with squadrons of American-built C-104 Starfighters and F-101 Voodoos, even though the initial reasoning bordered on manned interceptors supposedly being obsolete.

The Bomarc itself was not without controversy. It all started when it was announced in 1960 that the missiles would be equipped with nuclear warheads. Diefenbaker decided against any nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. And his cabinet split over the issue. The first Bomarcs arrived in Canada in 1961 with conventional warheads at a Royal Canadian Air Force Station in North Bay, Ontario. Lester Pearson, the Liberal Party and Official Opposition leader, saw his chance and went for it. Totally against nuclear warheads on the Bomarcs initially, Pearson performed his own version of a political flip-flop by suddenly arguing in favor of the nukes.

The strategy led to the downfall of the Diefenbaker government, ushering in Pearson’s Liberal Party in a minority situation in 1963 aided by the NDP party, with the Bomarc missile warheads one of the main issues. The first nuclear-equipped Bomarcs were deployed later that year at RCAF squadrons in North Bay and La Macaza, Quebec. Although fully operational, the missiles were never used in combat or even any testing this side of the border. Only in Florida. Nine years after installation, in early 1972, all Bomarcs were removed from Canadian territory.

What about the Americans? What did they do in answer to the launching of the three Sputnik satellites?

Soviet stamp celebrating Sputnik I
Soviet stamp celebrating Sputnik I (US Public Domain)

In 1958, President Dwight D Eisenhower initiated the US space program by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That same year, US Congress passed the National Defense Education Act that provided scholarships to striving scientists, engineers and mathematicians. Shortly after Sputnik III had finished its run in early 1961, newly-elected US President John Kennedy, in a speech before Congress on May 25, announced, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Besides keeping their own manned interceptors intact, Washington selected advanced research groups that developed such weapons as Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), spy satellites, and missile defense systems that extended all across the northern Canadian DEW Line.

Ironically, following the 1959 Avro Arrow cancellation, a group of 32 Avro Canada engineers and technicians led by the brilliant aerodynamicist Jim Chamberlain joined the US Space Program and helped the Americans establish the Apollo Program that put a man on the moon in 1969.

Today, there are more than 1,000 operational satellites in Low-Earth Orbit, with half of these launched by the United States. Also, over the years, space debris--from damaged satellites and so on--has become a significant problem. Over 21,000 objects larger than 10cm orbit the earth at several thousand miles per hour.

And that’s what has happened nearly 58 years since the launching of Sputnik I, the basketball-sized satellite that had changed the technological world forever.


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