Convergence of Ideas

This coming Thursday, the 4th of October, will be the 50th anniversary of the launching of Prosteishiy Sputnik (or the Simplest Satellite) and the beginnings of the Space Age and Space Race. Only now is the fascinating back story detailing the events leading up to the launch coming out in the open.

For instance, the public was told that the object they were seeing as it twinkled across the night sky was Sputnik itself. However, the satellite weighing in at 184 pounds was too small to be seen with the naked eye. What people actually were looking at was the second stage of the booster rocket used to lift Sputnik into orbit. Interestingly, the Soviet leadership at the time did not at first realize the magnitude of their achievement until the Western governments and press made a big deal out of it.

Yesterday, Fairchild Semiconductor celebrated its 50th anniversary as well. Founded by Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, C. Sheldon Roberts, Victor Grinich, Eugene Kleiner, Jean Hoerni and Julius Blank, and Jay Last with $3,500 of their own money, the company helped make Silicon Valley. Fairchild perfected the capability to mass produce transistors from a single wafer, whereas up to this point only one transistor could be produced per wafer. The company also created the monolithic integrated circuit and the planar transistor, which is still the the primary method for producing transistors today.

Moore and Noyce left 11 years later to start another company in the Valley, something called Intel.

Sputnik and Fairchild together helped to create much of the IT Age we live in now. The Space Race provided an unquestioned rationale for spending vast amounts of government money on improving computing, and computing provided satellites with ever increasing capability. For instance, global satellite communications were commercially available by 1965 - less than eight years after Sputnik. Today, we get satellite imagery on Google for free at resolutions of two-meters or less, and spy satellites today supposedly have resolutions of 5 to 10 centimeters or less.

So, even as we celebrate these two anniversaries, it is not without some irony that the US Department of Homeland Security yesterday announced that it was suspending its planned sharing of military satellite imagery with local law enforcement and other local agencies until privacy issues could be worked out.

We've come a long way in the last fifty years, and not all of its fruits borne over that time have been sweet.

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