Fifty two years ago, it took a team of scientists and engineers (along with the military of the Soviet Union) to build and launch the first artificial space satellite. On the evening of October 4, 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched into low Earth orbit. Radio operators around the world picked up the “beep” signal it broadcast for twenty two days. Sputnik 1 did change the course of history. However, like most technological products, it’s not quite the marvel it once was. Even at the time in 1957, it was designated by its creators as the “simple satellite”.
Sputnik was essentially a large metal globe about two feet in diameter. It had a pair of antennae – like television “rabbit ears” – that stuck out eight or nine feet. Inside, the interior was mostly taken up with heavy batteries, enough to power the one-watt transmitter for a couple of weeks. There were two switches – like those in a thermostat – that controlled a fan. If Sputnik got too hot, a switch would activate a fan. If it got too cold, the other switch would turn the fan off. A third switch measured the pressure of nitrogen inside the satellite. If Sputnik were hit by a micro-meteor, the switch would have activated a radio signal.
These days, pressure and thermal switches are available “off the shelf” using cheap components the Soviet scientists in the mid 1950’s could only dream of. One watt radio transmitters can be built to fit in the palm of your hand and even the batteries required would be perhaps a quarter of the size of the originals. As for the outer shell, the design is obviously well known. A firm in Arizona has even posted the plans on their website.
The launch to orbit would be the biggest challenge. It’s not a technological issue anymore, but rather an economic one. Today, the average satellite launch runs somewhere around $120 million dollars. That’s six times more than the entire budget of the Soviet space program in 1957. It’s possible a Sputnik might be launched in conjunction with another – larger – satellite. By current definition, a 23 inch aluminum sphere would be considered a pretty small satellite. Perhaps even someone might be willing to launch it for “old time’s sake”. In 1997, high school students built their own version of Sputnik 1 and the Russians put in on board one of the supply ships for the Space Station Mir. That fall – near the 40th anniversary of the first Sputnik – astronauts took a spacewalk and “hand launched” it into orbit “towards the moon”.