The Little Satellite that Triggered the Space Age

On this day in 1957, the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the first, largest, and most active space port to this day). Thus, began a series of pioneering Soviet firsts—from nonhuman lunar landings to explorations of Venus—that would in turn trigger the Space Race with America culminating in the Moon landings.

60 Years Since Sputnik | Space | Air & Space Magazine

Ironically, despite the centralized and authoritarian nature of the Soviet political system, the U.S.S.R. never developed a single coordinating space agency like NASA. Instead it relied on several competing “design bureaus” led by brilliant and ambitious chief engineers vying to produce the best ideas. In other worlds, these Cold War rivals embraced space exploration with the other side’s philosophy: the Americans were more government centered, while the Russians went with something closer to a free market. (Of course, this oversimplifies things since the U.S. relied and still relies on independent contractors.)

Sergei Korolev - Wikipedia

Hence Sputnik was the product of six different entities, from the Soviet Academy of Science to the Ministry of Defense and even the Ministry of Shipbuilding. The satellite had been proposed and designed by Sergei Korolev, a visionary rocket scientist who also designed its launcher, the R-7, which was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. He is considered the father of modern aeronautics, playing a leading role in launching the first animal and human into space, with plans to land on the Moon before his unexpected death in 1966—three years before the U.S. would achieve that feat (who knows if the Russians would have made it had Korolev lived).

As many of us know, Sputnik’s launch led to the so called “Sputnik crisis”, which triggered panic and even hysteria among Americans, who feared the “free world” was outdone by the communists and that American prestige, leadership, scientific achievement, and even national security were all at stake. (After all, the first ICBM had just been used to launch the satellite and could very well do the same with nukes.)

Surprisingly, neither the Soviet nor American governments put much importance in Sputnik, at least not initially. The Russian response was pretty lowkey, as Sputnik was not intended for propaganda. The official state newspaper devoted only a few paragraphs to it, and the government had kept private its advances in rocketry and space science, which were well ahead of the rest of the world.

The U.S. government response was also surprisingly muted, far more so than the American public. The Eisenhower Administration already knew what was coming due to spy planes and other intelligence. Not only did they try to play it down, but Eisenhower himself was actually pleased that the U.S.S.R., and not the U.S., would be the first to test the waters of this new and uncertain frontier of space law.

But the subsequent shock and concern caught both the Soviet and American governments off guard. The U.S.S.R. soon went all-in with propaganda about Soviet technological expertise, especially as the Western world had long propagandized its superiority over the backward Russians. The U.S. pour money and resources into science and technology, creating not only NASA but DARPA, which is best known for planting the seeds of what would become the Internet. There was a new government-led emphasis on science and technology in American schools, with Congress enacting the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which provided low-interest loans for college tuition to students majoring in math and science.

After the launch of Sputnik, one poll found that one in four Americans thought that Russian sciences and engineering were superior to American; but the following year, this stunningly dropped to one out of ten, as the U.S. began launching its own satellites into space. The U.S.-run GPS system was largely the result of American physicists realizing Sputnik’s potential for allowing objects to be pinpointed from space.

The response to Sputnik was not entirely political, fearful, or worrisome. It was also a source of inspiration for generations of engineers, scientists, and astronauts across the world, even in the rival U.S. Many saw it optimistically as the start of a great new space age. The aeronautic designer Harrison Storms—responsible for the X-15 rocket plane and a head designer for major elements of the Apollo and Saturn V programs—claimed that the launch of Sputnik moved him to think of space as being the next step for America. Astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Deke Slayton, one of the “Mercury Seven” who led early U.S. spaceflights, later wrote of how the sight of Sputnik 1 passing overhead inspired them to pursue their record-breaking new careers.

Who could look back and imagine that this simple, humble little satellite would lead us to where we are today? For all the geopolitical rivalry involved, Sputnik helped usher in tremendous hope, progress, and technological achievement.

The Largest Scientific Endeavor Breaks Ground!

Somehow, amid all the geopolitical rivalries, tensions, and rising nationalism, nearly three dozen countries—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Russia, the U.S., and all 27 members of the European Union—are joining forces to launch the largest scientific research facility in history.

Known as ITER, the roughly $24 billion megaproject is being built in southern France to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy. Current nuclear energy relies on fission, where a heavy chemical element, usually uranium, is split to produce lighter ones, thereby generating energy—but also radioactivity.

Nuclear fusion works the opposite way, combining two light elements to make a heavier one. This process powers stars like our sun and releases vast amounts of energy with very little radioactivity. Since it can work with light and abundant elements like hydrogen, it has the potential to supply humanity with limitless energy for millions of years.

To put it in perspective, through nuclear fusion, a relative handful of hydrogen could produce enough energy to power 2,300 American homes annual (equivalent to about 10,000 tons of coal, the most common fuel in the world and highly polluting). A 2,000 megawatt fusion power plant would supply electricity for two million homes.

France's global nuclear fusion device a puzzle of huge parts

Despite 60 year of trying, there has been little progress in making nuclear fusion commercially viable—hopefully until now. By the time ITER is completed in 2025, we may finally come within reachable grasp of this promising energy source. In addition to being the largest research facility, it will also be the largest nuclear fusion experiment and will have the largest system of superconducting magnets.

At the heart of ITER will be Tokamak, a Russian invention that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine a hot plasma to generate fusion. While devised in the 1960s, to this day a Tokamak is the leading candidate for industrial-scale fusion—hence ITER will have one stretching 100 feet and comprised of one million parts.

Start of ITER assembly paves way for fusion energy era ...

In announcing the groundbreaking of the project today, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the effort would unite countries around a common good. “ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty. At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday.”

Good to see the world still managing to stick together for something this big and consequential. A heartening display of our species’ potential.

Lessons from Estonia on E-Voting

Count on the country that helped invent Skype to lead the way when it comes to digital government. The nation of just 1.5 million, also known for having been the first to break away from the Soviet Union, has made a name for itself as a pioneer in utilizing technology to improve civic engagement. As Forbes reports:

Modern-day Estonia has become synonymous with the notion of reimagining how citizens interact with their government, making nearly every governmental service available from home or on the go via a mouse click. Since 2005 the country has allowed its citizens to cast their votes in pan-national elections via a secure online portal system, growing to over 30% of votes cast in the last several elections, according to Tarvi Martens, Chairman of the Estonian Electronic Voting Committee.

Citizens can vote as many times as they like up to election day, with only the final vote counting. Those who do not have access to a computer or who prefer old fashioned paper ballots can still vote by paper – evoting is an option rather than a mandate.

Interestingly, nearly a quarter of evotes in recent elections have been cast by people over the age of 55, with another 20% of evotes from the 45-54 age range. This suggests evoting enjoys broad support not just among young digital native millennials, but across the societal spectrum, especially among those who, at least in the US, are not typically viewed as early adopters of digital services.

To vote in Estonia, one simply visits the national election website and downloads and installs the voting application. Then you insert your national identity card into your computer’s card reader, fill out your digital ballot, confirm your choices and digitally sign and submit your eballot. You can do all of this from the comfort of your own home in the seven days leading up to election day.

Pretty amazing stuff, especially for a country that still largely relies on woefully outdated tech to cast its votes. 

Granted, with cybersecurity being one of the penultimate concerns of 21st century technology, lots of skeptics would be right to question whether something like voting is yet another activity that should be put in the realm of potential hackers. But Estonia seems to have addressed this issue, too.

Of course, one of the most common concerns regarding internet voting is the potential that one’s vote could be changed either by a virus on your computer or as your ballot transits the internet on its way to the central government servers. To address this, Estonia’s evoting system adds a novel twist: the ability to use your mobile phone to separately connect to the electoral servers via a different set of tools and services to see how your vote was recorded and verify that it is correct.

After casting your vote using your desktop computer you can thus pull out your smartphone and verify the results that were actually received by the central electoral servers. The results are encrypted so that no government official can see how you individually voted, only you can see your individual voting choices, even as they are aggregated into the national totals.

By physically separating vote casting and vote checking to two different devices (votes are cast via a desktop computer, while checking your vote must be performed on your phone), it makes it highly unlikely that even the most motivated attacker could compromise both devices in such a way that your vote could be changed without your knowledge. And of course, even after voting online, you can always show up at a polling station on election day and vote via paper ballot if you want.

The ability to verify through a physically separate channel that the data received by the government is what you sent goes a long way towards addressing many of the most common concerns about electronic voting

I think this is perfectly doable in the U.S., at least on a technical level; constitutionally, every state handles voting its own way, so whether we can implement a nationwide standard of e-voting remains to be seen. But if even a handful of states give it a try, it might set a good example and get the ball rolling.

What are your thoughts?

Facebook Isn’t Popular in Only a Handful of Countries

Russia and China are the only countries to have their own social media platforms be more popular than an American one: V Kontakte and Odnoklassniki (part of “Russia’s Google”, and QZone (owned by China’s tech giant, Tencent, the world’s largest gaming and social media company). However, China bans most U.S. platforms, and only Russia’s are popular abroad (albeit in the Russian-speaking former Soviet bloc).

Otherwise, Facebook is very clearly the leading social network by a wide margin, dominating 152 out of 167 countries analyzed (91% of the planet).


China’s CRISPR Babies

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to render the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
The clinical trial documents describe a study to employ CRISPR to modify human embryos, then to transfer them into the uterus of mothers and deliver healthy children.

It is unclear if any children have been born. The scientist behind the effort, Jiankui He, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone he declined to comment. However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and for China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine to eliminate genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics. 

Source: MIT Technology Review