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Thank Sputnik for today's orbital freedom

Fifty years after the Russian satellite went into Earth orbit, this pioneer in space technology still holds political significance.

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Next Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the rise of Earth's first artificial moon – Russia's Sputnik satellite. That may seem like a small achievement in an era when we watch robots explore Mars and view our weather from space. But orbiting a 184-pound beeping sphere twice the size of a basketball with no scientific or military capability sent an emotional shock wave around the world in October 1957.

It was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union. A country many considered "backward" was now showing advanced technological capability.

For the United States, it was a strategic victory. Secret documents, now declassified, show the Eisenhower administration was counting on using small scientific satellites to establish the principle of orbital freedom. Like freedom of the high seas, where no nation can claim sovereignty, freedom of Earth orbit meant that any nation could orbit satellites that passed over any other nation at will. Once that principle was established, spy satellites would soon circle the planet.

Sputnik fit the plan. It was Russian and passed over the US. Therefore, the Soviet Union could not object to American satellites passing over its territory. It was also a peaceful forerunner of satellites that gather scientific data. And as a result, no other nations objected to their passing overhead.

That is why Eisenhower greeted Sputnik with what seemed at the time to be a baffling equanimity.

The American public, including all its politicians, were not privy to his strategy. They assumed Sputnik showed the US lagged behind the Soviet Union in rocketry and, perhaps, in some other technologies. They demanded action. Crafty Eisenhower had not anticipated that political firestorm. The actions he and the Congress then took beefed up support for scientific research and strengthened science education. They laid the foundation for the space program that eventually put astronauts on the moon.

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