Sputnik beeps continue to echo in corridor 60 years later

Sputnik, the shiny Russian satellite in the night sky in 1957, would change everything at the University of Iowa and change the life of a young engineer

17-year-old electrical engineering student Don Gurnett had only been on campus at the University of Iowa a few weeks when the Russians launched the mission that would change his life. The night of October 4th, 1957, the Soviets shot a rocket into the heavens carrying Sputnik, the Russian word for satellite, the first ever. It was a shock and terrifying for many Americans, knowing that in the middle of the cold war, a country with atomic bomb capabilities had an object orbiting over the United States. Instead of reacting with fear, Gurnett was among many who found out when Sputnik would pass and went outside to gaze at the fast-moving shiny object race across the Iowa night sky.

The 22-inch satellite, which would last barely three months, changed everything in the country and at the university, according to Gurnett. It immediately brought concern the U.S. was far behind in technology and focused attention on math and science in schools and at universities and fueled the beginning of the space race. Gurnett learned U of I Physicist James Van Allen had built research instruments for the first successful U.S. satellite as Explorer I launched a few months after Sputnik. A model airplane and rocket enthusiast from an early age, Gurnett found Van Allen and asked to work with him in the frantic effort to rocket the United States back into contention, “ We were working here 80-hours a week as well as going to school and within a year of being in high school I was down at Cape Kennedy, launching real rockets instead of building model rockets.”

Sputnik changed his life forever. After 52 years at U of I, Gurnett has been involved in building instruments for more than 40 spacecraft, overseeing the first university built spacecraft and working on Voyager, the probe that’s traveled farther from earth than any man-made object. Six decades after standing out in the dark watching that shiny object in the sky, Gurnett says he’s proud of being part of the incredible expansion of the U.S. space program and space research which has brought more than $600-Million to the University of Iowa over the years.

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