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Space race to sat nav

Looks back to the launching of the first satellite in October 1952, and reflects on what the future will bring.

by Ronni Lamont

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To look back to the launching of the first satellite in October 1952, and think about what the future will bring.

Preparation and materials


  1. Play the music as students enter. Display the pictures as you mention people and satellites.

    In October 1952, the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched, and the distinctive beep-beep sound was heard by people all over the world through the news broadcasts – both from the USSR, who had launched the satellite, and the USA, who were listening in for espionage purposes.
  2. At the time, the world was deep into what we call the Cold War, with nuclear missiles aimed at each other by both superpowers. Europe was divided by the ‘Iron Curtain’, the border between the democratic countries to the West, and the countries under Communist rule to the East. Few people crossed the border, and for people living in West Germany who wanted to travel to Berlin in the East there were ferocious border checks, visa requirements and often refusal to enter when at the actual border.

    Thus, the sound of Sputnik flying overhead was truly terrifying for the West. What would be launched from this satellite? What were the Russians planning to use it for?
  3. It was April 1961 when the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space, once again beating the USA. In February 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, for just over one hour. (He later became the oldest astronaut to fly in the Shuttle Discovery in 1995, at the age of 77.)
  4. It was May 1961 when the then President, John F. Kennedy, announced the aim to place men on the moon by the end of the decade.

    In July of the same year, Telstar 1, the first communications satellite, was launched. Excitement about the way this satellite was set to change lives was highlighted by the record of the same name.

    Telstar was used for telephone and television transmissions, and slowly people became used to the new communications that were possible.
  5. While we have been remembering Apollo 11 these last few months, the launch of Sputnik was possibly more life-changing.

    (Hold up the sat nav.) Many of your families will have something like this. We marvel at them the first time we see one, then, like much else, we think little of what these machines do for us.

    When we turn on our sat nav, and tell it where we want it to take us, it locates specific satellites, and using maps already stored in the memory, directs us to our destination. This little box contains far more technology than Apollo 11. And we take them for granted.
  6. Working behind the scenes of all the inventions, satellites and spaceships are the unsung heroes who have changed our world for ever. We can talk to people on the other side of the world, either though phones, by email or by skype technology. We see pictures on the news that would previously have been filmed and flown back. We may have this technology in our mobile phones. Life has changed so much in the last 50 years – who knows where it will go in the next 50?

Time for reflection

Play the music, and look at the images once more.

We think of the people who worked and died to bring humanity the improvements that these satellites and missions represent.
We think of the technology that we use, and realize how much we take it for granted.
As we move into the future, may we also work to improve the lives of human beings.

Publication date: October 2009   (Vol.11 No.10)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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