Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sputnik's 50th Anniversary

(* Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik and here's Jeremy Briggs again with a little piece to celebrate...)


The fiftieth anniversary this week of the launch of the world's first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957 reminded me of a little known fact about the French space programme that has some relevance here in the Alley.

The name Sputnik just means 'satellite' in Russian and after it came the satellites of other nations who all had different ideas when it came to naming them. The first American satellite was rather boringly called Explorer 1 while the first British satellite was called Prospero, but do you know what the name of the first French satellite was?

Firstly a little background and some illustrations by Dan Dare artist Gerald Palmer from Rockets and Spacecraft Book 2, one of the appropriately entitled Orbit Books, a set of little four inch square hardback children's books published by Collins in the mid to late 1960s.

In the Sixties when the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was at its height, the smaller nations also tried to stake their claim to the high ground of space. Britain launched its first home grown satellite in 1971, Prospero, on a British designed and built space rocket called Black Arrow. It was the one and only all British launch, all future British satellites would be launched by rockets from other nations.

France, never a country to be left behind technologically, also produced their own space rocket and satellite. The rocket was known as Diamant (Diamond) and in 1965 it launched the first French satellite. We named our satellite after a Shakespearean character and the French similarly named their satellite after a fictional French character known to millions of readers around the world. Admittedly when it was launched it was simply designated A-1 but once in orbit it was soon renamed Asterix. What other country would have named their first satellite after their most famous comic strip character?

Mind you if we were to take an imaginary leap into the future...

It is 2022 and to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Republic of Scotland after the dissolution of the United Kingdom, Scottish President Alex Salmond proudly visits the Montgomery Scott Space Centre on the Orkney Islands to watch the launch of the first Scottish satellite. Using French rocket technology passed to Scotland under the second Auld Alliance treaty the satellite successfully achieves orbit. Its name? Oor Wullie Wan.

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