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Celebrating 50 Years of Spaceflight

A Viterbi School astronautics professor looks back at Sputnik and ahead to interstellar exploration during AIAA anniversary celebration of space

September 16, 2007 —

Spacecraft have traveled a long way since Sputnik first reached orbit on Oct. 4, 1957 — about 10 billion miles (100 astronomical units) and still counting — but spacecraft of the future are likely to go far beyond that record, says USC astronautics professor Mike Gruntman.

Gruntman, a co-investigator on one of those future missions, NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), is a child of the Sputnik era with a unique insider’s perspective of the early days of Russian satellite development: he grew up in Tyuratam, located in present-day Kazakhstan, which was home to Sputnik's secret launch site.

Mike Gruntman, professor of astronautics in the Viterbi School Astronautics and Space Technology Division.
During fall celebrations of the Space Age all over the country, Gruntman will share some of his early Sputnik recollections, as well as present current research on new missions to explore the ‘heliopause’ at a number of conferences, including the Sept. 18-20 AIAA Space 2007 Conference and Exposition in Long Beach, CA.  

Initial Research Interests
Gruntman said he published his first papers on the tenuous boundary between our solar system and interstellar space in the early 1980s, The Voyager spacecraft detected that boundary years later, “but they were not instrumented to study it,” he said.

Plasma physics had interested Gruntman back in the 1970s, when he was a junior physics student in the USSR.  He excelled in the field and later continued his doctoral work at the prestigious Space Research Institute (IKI) of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

He defended his dissertation work before a committee headed by the then newly appointed IKI Director Roald Sagdeev, who later became an advisor to the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. After earning a doctorate, he continued to work at IKI as a research scientist, developing novel instrumentation for the detection of energetic neutral atoms in space.

An Inhospitable Place
Gruntman does not remember his childhood in Tyuratam fondly. 

"Tyuratam was inhospitable, nothing more than a whistle stop with 20 or 30 inhabitants, in the middle of literally nowhere,” said Gruntman, whose father oversaw the construction of the secret Sputnik launch site. “The Russians wanted to keep the launch site secret, so they announced that their space launch operations were being conducted from Baikonur, which later became known as Baikonur Cosmodrome.  In reality, Baikonur is located 200 miles away from Tyuratam.”

The launch site was chosen, in part, because satellites could be launched in an eastern direction to achieve low-Earth orbits and, in part, because it was geographically isolated, hidden from visibility in a barren desert far away from populated areas.

Gruntman and his mother in Tyuratam in 1958. -- Mike Gruntman photo

The complex itself was basic, consisting of a huge concrete launch platform, a 70-foot tall service tower and a gigantic, 350-foot deep flame pit.  Gruntman, his parents and older brother, lived in a small town of prefabricated wooden-plank houses erected for the families of servicemen and civilian personnel constructing the launch platform. During the Cold War years, they watched the launch site grow rapidly from one launch platform to four. 
Sputnik, which means “fellow traveler” in Russian, was hurtled into space on October 4, 1957 aboard one of the world’s first successfully launched ICBMs, the R-7.  In the U.S., President Eisenhower made light of it, calling Sputnik a “small ball” of steel. But the 184-pound aluminum sphere, which was about the size of a basketball, made headlines the world over.  It not only became the first artificial satellite to reach orbit, but established Russia’s temporary supremacy in space.

 No Technological Gap

The Sputnik satellite carried a radio transmitter, batteries and a system of thermal control. 
-- Mike Gruntman photo
But Russia didn’t have the upper hand, Gruntman said. 

“Many assumed that the Russians had the edge on space exploration because they had been first to launch an ICBM and artificial satellite into space,” he said, “but actually there was no technological gap in missile technology at the time.

“The R-7 did not have the advantage over the U.S. Atlas,” said the author of Blazing the Trail: the Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry (AIAA 2004), which earned him the 2006 Luigi Napolitano Award from the International Academy of Astronautics.  “It was bigger, but the Atlas was more technologically sophisticated. The Soviets were using less advanced technology for nuclear warheads, which accounted for the difference in rocket size.”

In reality, the United States could have launched an artificial satellite a year before Sputnik, using Army hardware.  But the Eisenhower Administration wanted to “achieve similar goals outside of military programs,” Gruntman said.  So the U.S. waited until Jan. 31, 1958, to launch a 31.5-pound satellite named Explorer 1 into orbit.  The satellite went on to discover the Van Allen radiation belts.

Visit the Photo Gallery for more historic photographs of the beginning of the Space Age.