USU Scholars Honor Sputnik's Legacy
Thursday, Sep. 27, 2007
Members of USU's Microgravity Research Team, from left, Phillip Anderson, Steve Berkley, Jeff Brady, Ryan Schaefermeyer and Jacob Beck, display a prototype frame of their "Little Nik" cubesat. The project commemorates the 50th anniversary of Sputnik.
USU chemistry professor Alexander Boldyrev, a native of Siberia, remembers the tremendous excitement of early space exploration. He cites advancement of science education as Sputnik's most significant legacy.
Oct. 4 marks the 50th anniversary of a space project that not only blasted the first manmade satellite into orbit but ignited a fiercely competitive space race between global superpowers, laid the groundwork for today’s satellite-dependent society and fueled the imaginations of generations of budding scientists.
Sputnik 1’s simple but strong radio signal was a clarion call to startled audiences throughout the world who never dreamed the Soviet Union would lead the charge into the final frontier.
Just two hours after the launch, NBC Radio interrupted the World Series with an announcement: 'Listen now for a sound that forever more separates the old from the new -the beep-beep-beep.'
That comment rang true.
Members of Utah State University’s student Microgravity Research Team are among space enthusiasts around the world who are commemorating the 1957 event. The team, composed of undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of disciplines, is crafting a tiny replica of the original satellite.
“Our project celebrates the innovation of Sputnik 1, while highlighting how far space technology has advanced,” says student Steve Berkley, who serves as coordinator of MRT, formerly known as the Get-Away Special or “GAS” team.
Organized in 1976, GAS, now MRT, is largely responsible for one of the university’s well known achievements: Utah State has sent more student-built experiments into space than any other university in the world.
The spherical Sputnik 1 measured 23 inches in diameter with four antennas ranging in length from about eight to 10 feet. “Little Nik,” as USU’s replica is called, will fit into a four-inch cube.
“Our plan is for Little Nik to broadcast Sputnik’s original signal plus something about USU,” Berkley says.
MRT is participating in an international picosatellite project led by California State Polytechnic University. The Cal Poly CubeSat Project coordinates launches of participating schools’ satellites on governmental and private spacecraft. USU’s team expects to complete Little Nik in the spring and launch the cubesat in fall 2008.
“The Cal Poly project is sort of a space race among universities throughout the world,” Berkley says.
Berkley and his fellow MRT members, along with most USU students, are unable to remember the original space race, let alone a time when our daily activities – from cell phones and worldwide TV broadcasts to GPS imagery and the World Wide Web – weren’t touched by satellites. But a number of faculty, staff, alumni and older students remember those mid-20th century years with clarity.
Alexander Boldyrev’s memories of the actual Sputnik launch are fuzzy; he was just 5 years old at the time. But the event’s impact on his Russian homeland guided his formative years. From the age of 6 or so, the USU chemistry professor remembers that space exploration always occupied his mind.
“The space program was the biggest excitement in my life,” recalls Boldyrev, who was born and raised in the coal mining city of Novokuznetsk, Siberia.
Awed by an elementary science teacher’s presentation, Boldyrev knew, before entering school at age 7, that he wanted to become a chemist.
“She made such a big impression on me with her experiments – making ‘blood’ suddenly appear, creating explosions,” he says.
The practically minded youngster reasoned that while chemists might not be called upon to pilot rockets, scientists were certain to be included in future space exploration.
“My responsibility was developing rocket fuel,” Boldyrev says.
With his brothers and friends, the young lad spent hours building rockets. The simple vehicles were made of paper, but the fuel required greater thought and effort.
“We built our own apparatus to burn wood for charcoal, added sulfur and mixed nitrate from fertilizer into the fuel,” he says. “Our rockets traveled as high as 100 meters into the air. For us, it was very high.”
While comic books might have been the expected reading matter for one his age, Boldyrev pored over technical reports issued by TASS, the Soviet space agency. He remembers idolizing Soviet cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin, the first person to orbit the Earth.
“The advancement of the space program was so fast,” Boldyrev says. “Gagarin traveled into space just four years after Sputnik. When Sputnik was launched, no one knew if a living thing could survive in space. The excitement was enormous.”
Young Boldyrev surmised that humans will soon travel to the Moon, Mars, Venus and beyond. He worried that nothing would be left to explore by the time he reached adulthood.
At age 15, Boldyrev’s academic aptitude propelled him into a high school program for students gifted in math and science in Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city – some 300 miles from his parents’ home.
Boldyrev reveled in the opportunity. “Imagine – a school with 300 kids all crazy about science,” he says. “It was so much fun.”
He subsequently completed undergraduate and graduate studies at Novosibirsk University and earned doctorates from the U.S.S.R Academy of Sciences’ Institute of New Chemical Problems and the Institute of Chemical Physics. Boldyrev taught at the Moscow Physical Technical Institute for nearly 20 years. He traveled to Germany on a research fellowship and was then offered a visiting professorship at the University of Utah. He joined USU’s faculty in 1999.
Boldyrev acknowledges that a key portion of Sputnik’s legacy is the major advances in space exploration. The space race accelerated research and technology in a myriad of fields. “Shuttle flights to the International Space Station are now routine,” he notes.
But even more significant, he says, was Sputnik’s impact on science education.
“It tremendously affected Soviet science education, as well as education in the U.S. and throughout the world,” Boldyrev says.
Even with the current economic turmoil, he says, students in the former Soviet states are benefiting from a robust educational system with roots in those heady beginnings in space exploration. It’s Utah State’s fortune, he says, that a number of those scholars have made their way to USU.
Boldyrev hopes current efforts to reach Mars will again spark youngsters’ interest in math and science and fuel renewed commitment to advanced education.
“Mars missions require a whole new level of thought and technology,” he says.