Before Sputnik - The First Man-made Object in Space
Technology Articles 9/2/11
By: Chris Capps
When we look at the incredible history of human space travel, the humble beginnings of human objects being propelled into space have a very surprising beginning - and it doesn't just start with the Soviet Sputnik program. In fact, the first object ever launched into space was actually launched entirely by accident. And not only is it still up there, it has actually traveled further than any other known man-made object out of our solar system - and it bears with it evidence of mankind's most terrifying technological achievement.
An obscure urban legend has come up around the incident. The unofficial version of the story suggests it was a manhole cover that had accidentally been left in place during a nuclear test. In reality it was a metal plate and it had been left on purpose. But that's where the urban legend ends and the truly strange story begins. And the effects of this experiment may very well remain long after humanity has left Earth behind for better or worse.
It all began with a massive nuclear explosion during an underground test. The incredible force of the blast immediately vaporized a column of water that sent the metal plate forcefully up at such an incredible speed that it was estimated to be moving more than four times the speed required to reach the Earth's escape velocity. At this speed not only would the device be able to make it into space, it did so with unprecedented speed. And since the void of space offers virtually no resistance, the metal plate was estimated to keep going long afterward as well. Currently most people still imagine that the furthest man-made object to ever be fired into space is the Voyager Space probe, but this simple metal plate is expected to have not only exceeded the distance of the Voyager, but may outrun any spacecraft or probe fired into space for several centuries. And it was fired into the void entirely by accident.
Operation Plumbob, when the nuclear test was conducted, occurred in 1957 - the same year as the Soviet Union's Sputnik launch. But while Sputnik was launched using the conventional rockets that would later become the staple of the space program, Plumbob fired the metal plate into space in a way more akin to a cannon being fired.
If the almost 2,000 lb metal plate survived the Earth's atmosphere as well as it survived the force of the blast itself, then it is not only serving as an unintentional message in a bottle into the stars, but it may also have evidence of mankind's nuclear ambitions as well in the form of stowaway ionizing radiation. If ever the straight line the object travels in is traced back to its source, a passing alien race may find the beings that mastered the destructive force of the atom. But will they find that the same technology that sent the object into space in the first place eventually destroyed us as well? The choice is ours.