July 1, 1957 – The International Geophysical Year Begins

On July 1, 1957, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) began its eighteen-month run.  First proposed by the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1952, the IGY was an ambitious program of coordinated research by the world’s scientists into the mysteries of geophysical phenomenon such as aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determination, meteorology, oceanography, rocketry, seismology, and solar activity.  Research into Antarctic ice depths yielded a new estimate of the earth’s total ice content.

But the most attention-grabbing goal of the program was the endeavor to launch an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth.  Recent breakthroughs in technology included cosmic ray recorders, spectroscopes, radiosonde balloons, electronic computers – and the rocket.  Exploration of space to pursue scientific knowledge of our solar system was now a real possibility.  By the end of the IGY the world’s superpowers had successfully launched seven satellites, after previous years of setbacks and failures.  The IGY fully achieved its goal to “observe physical phenomena and to secure data from all parts of the world; to conduct this work on a coordinated basis by fields, and in space and time, so that results could be collated in a meaningful manner”.

An uneasy relationship existed between the scientific community and the military establishment at this time.  IGY scientists feared that military preoccupation with launching satellites would detract from other goals.  Scientists also resented that the military held its rocket technology information close to the vest.

National Science Foundation posters, new television programs, and filmstrips for high schools were created by the program to translate the IGY findings for the common man.  Reaction to the first satellite launch took on a good news-bad news aspect.  On the one hand, we could now explore the infinity of space and learn more about our own planet.  On the other, those superpowers who now had satellite capability also had the ability to place nuclear bombs in orbit, threatening mass destruction.

Image Credit: National Academy of Sciences

October 11, 1957 – Sputnik-Spotting With MIT’s IBM 704

IBM 704 Computer with Operator. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

On October 11, 1957, the enormous IBM 704 computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computation Center produced the first “satisfactory orbit” calculations for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Sputnik 1-spotting mission.  Operation Moonwatch, a group of amateur astronomers organized by Observatory Director Fred Lawrence Whipple, was working feverishly in Cambridge, Massachusetts since Sputnik’s October 4th launch to develop the mathematical models to accurately calculate and predict where the first man-made Earth satellite would appear in the sky at any given time.  If they could determine the position of Sputnik 1, they could derive its “orbital elements”, or “parameters required to uniquely identify a specific orbit” – scientist talk for “where exactly is the satellite now and where will be it be in five, ten, or fifteen minutes?”.

The IBM 704, introduced in 1954, was the first mass-produced computer with floating-point arithmetic hardware and core memory (instead of tubes).  Computer languages FORTRAN and LISP were first developed for use with the 704.  It was able to execute up to a speedy 40,000 instructions per second.

The astronomers had three targets to work with: the Sputnik 1 satellite with its radio transmitter; a detached nose cone from the satellite; and the satellite’s discarded booster rocket.  Early in the morning of October 11th, at around 7:00 AM, the state-of-the-art IBM 704 was able to lock on and calculate the critical Earth-orbit data for the booster rocket.

Being able to accurately locate objects orbiting the Earth and passing over the United States was of great national security interest.  The questions on everyone’s mind since the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik 1 launch were: Would the Soviets send up an ICBM, now that they had the technology?  And: How soon?