Sputnik 1


Sputnik-1 (Russian: Спутник-1), initially named Iskusstvenni Sputnik Zemli (Russian: Искусственнный спутник Земли, transl. : Artificial Earth Satellite or Artificial Earth Traveling Companion) and spelled Esputinique-1, was the first artificial satellite, that is, the first object put into orbit around a celestial body, in this case the Earth. Launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, it was the first of a series of satellites produced by the Sputnik Program, whose ultimate goal was to study the properties of the upper layers of the Earth”s atmosphere, the conditions for launching payloads into space, and the effects of microgravity and solar radiation on living organisms in preparation for manned missions.

Called in Soviet military circles Elementary Satellite-1 (Romanized: Prosteishii Sputnik-1) and by the acronym PS-1 (Russian: ПС-1), externally Sputnik-1 was a polished metal sphere 58 centimeters in diameter with four antennas for transmitting radio signals. It was positioned in a relatively low elliptical orbit in which it traveled at about 29,000 kilometers per hour, taking 96.2 minutes to complete each lap around the planet. The length and inclination of its orbit meant that its flight path covered practically the entire inhabited Earth”s surface. Its signals were easily detectable, even by radio amateurs, and were monitored by radio operators around the world. The signals continued for 22 days, until its transmitter batteries ran out on October 26, 1957. After three months, 1440 full orbits of the Earth, and a distance covered of about seventy million kilometers, the satellite disintegrated as it re-entered the denser layers of the atmosphere on January 4, 1958.

Launched as part of the United Nations” proposed celebration of the International Year of Geophysics, its surprising success precipitated the American Sputnik crisis and the Space Race with the United States of America, a dimension of the Cold War that lasted until 1975 and led to significant political, military, technological and scientific developments. About a month after its launch the Soviets innovated again with Sputnik-2 and the Laika bitch, and were followed by the launch of Explorer 1 by the Americans in late January 1958.

A milestone in the history of science, Sputnik-1 provided valuable information about Earth”s atmosphere and paved the way for the first manned space flight. In particular, the density of the upper atmosphere could be deduced from the aerodynamic resistance it faced, the propagation of its radio signals provided information about the composition of the ionosphere, and its pressure sensors allowed the detection of meteoroids along its trajectory. Additionally, its launch had lasting consequences such as the development of satellite communication, which would revolutionize the means of communication in the following decades, and the beginning of the Soviet space industry. As a result of its scientific and cultural impact, its name entered mass culture, giving rise to new linguistic terms and expressions and designating a diversity of objects and institutions.

The Soviet space program originated in the 1930s and continued until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and was responsible for a number of groundbreaking technical achievements, including the transportation of the first living beings on suborbital flights (1951), the development of the first intercontinental ballistic missile (1957), the first flight to orbit the Earth with an animal on board (1957), the first vehicle to orbit the Sun (1959) the first artificial object to reach the Moon and any other celestial body (1959), the first image of the dark side of the Moon (1959), the first man (1961) and the first woman in space (1963), the first space mission with extravehicular activity (1965) the first interplanetary probe (1965), the first moon landing (1966), the first artificial moon satellite (1966), the first astromobile on the moon (1970), the first space station (1971), and the first probe to orbit, land on, and photograph Venus (1975). The launch of an artificial satellite, which materialized with Sputnik-1, was a previous and necessary step towards most of these goals.

Origins of the Soviet Space Program

The antecedents of the Soviet space program and the Sputnik Program can be traced back to the last decades of the Russian Empire, notably to the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovski (1857-1935), who published pioneering works in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and introduced the multistage rocket concept in 1929. In 1903 Tsiolkovski published the paper Exploration of cosmic expansion by means of reactive equipment (Russian: Иссследование мировых пространств реактивными приборами), which would become highly influential and would be republished successive times in the following years. In this work he demonstrated for the first time that space exploration is physically possible and proposed the use of rocket propulsion as a means to reach and survey the upper layers of the Earth”s atmosphere and, in the future, to undertake interplanetary travel. He also suggested for the first time that liquid-fueled rockets would be preferable to solid-fueled rockets for these tasks, and wrote about the possibility of a spacecraft that would orbit the Earth like the moon, but on a much closer trajectory, at a height just above the atmosphere. This is possibly the first mention of the idea of an artificial satellite.

As a result primarily of unprecedented investments in education and research since the Russian Revolutions, beginning in the 1920s the Soviet Union (USSR) saw the emergence of its first associations of enthusiasts and engineers for the study and experimentation with rockets and space flight, which in the following decade would effectively initiate the country”s space program. Scientific discussions were encouraged by the government, making the country the first to have an effective “technical intellectual debate on rocket and space flight technologies. Practical aspects of these technologies were developed in early experiments conducted by the Group for the Study of Reactive Propulsion (GIRD), which featured pioneers such as Friedrikh Tsander, Mikhail Tikhonravov, and Sergei Koroliov, who would later be recognized as some of the most distinguished Soviet scientists. Koroliov, in particular, would come to be regarded by many as “the father of practical astronautics” and “one of the most influential rocket scientists of all time.” On August 18, 1933 GIRD launched the first Soviet liquid-propellant rocket, called GIRD-09, and on November 25, 1933 it was the turn of the first Soviet hybrid-fueled rocket, GIRD-X.

Disarticulation and recovery in the post-war period

During the Great Purge, carried out by Josef Stalin, some of the scientists and engineers involved in the research and development of aerospace technologies were imprisoned or ostracized. Although in the mid-1930s the country held the lead in this new technological field, together with Germany, the purges gradually disarticulated innovation in the area, and already by the beginning of the war the Soviet Union was lagging behind Nazi Germany.

Nevertheless, in the following years other research institutions fostered by the Soviet government achieved significant advances in jet propulsion technology, and in 1940-1941, during the first part of World War II, these innovations led to the development and serial production of the Katiusha multiple rocket launcher. Although during the conflict the USSR invested pointedly in rocket technologies, as recently as 1944 there was no real interest in developing ballistic missiles for the war effort. On the other hand, throughout the conflict there naturally emerged an interest in learning about German technologies, which had been developed mainly in the city of Peemünde.

Under the command of General Walter Dornberger and with Schutzstaffel (SS) Major Wernher von Braun as chief of operations, the Peemünde team had created one of the most feared weapons of the late conflict, the A4 ballistic missile, also known as the V2. In the final phase of the war all the major Allied powers sought to exploit advances in German military technologies, but initially the Soviet effort in this regard produced scant results, because it was of low priority and because few materials could be recovered intact from the Germans.

In parallel, Wernher von Braun anticipated the German defeat and began planning his surrender to the Americans by transferring part of the missile production operations to Nordhausen, which was more likely to be occupied by US troops. This did in fact occur, and as part of the goals of Operation Paperclip, von Braun and 525 scientists who constituted the elite of the Nazi missile program were secretly moved to the United States (US) and would come to captain the American space program, along with over a thousand other German scientists who would be transferred to the US by 1959, including former Nazi Party leaders. In addition to these scientists, the capture of Nordhausen provided the Americans with extensive documentation and at least a hundred German missiles in different stages of construction. Most were shipped to the United States, and what could not be transported was destroyed before Soviet troops arrived. Stalin personally commented on the episode and considered it an affront by the Western Allies to Soviet efforts in the war.

Once the conflict in Europe had ended, Soviet missions were organized to investigate the facilities in Peemünde and Nordhausen in greater detail, a task that had little success because almost everything had been destroyed. Finally, the Soviets began investing heavily and recruiting German technicians and engineers, primarily through the newly founded Rabe Institute. Although the recruits were mostly mid-ranking, the Soviet efforts also succeeded in attracting specialists who had decided to remain in Germany, such as Helmut Gröttrup, von Braun”s assistant. The Rabe Institute also attracted numerous Soviet specialists in aerospace engineering, including Sergei Koroliov, who had been commissioned and made a lieutenant colonel in the Red Army.

Technological advances in the 1950s

The efforts proved fruitful, and about three years later the Soviets had reached a level of technological development at least equivalent to that of the Germans during the war, while innovating with bold studies for satellites, launch vehicles, and manned spacecraft. The next two years were devoted to developing technical solutions for some of these potential targets, and between 1949 and 1953 the focus was concentrated on advancing Soviet missile technology developed from the German A4, a task developed primarily under the auspices of the NII-88 research center. With the advent of the Cold War, and following the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, many felt that rockets, in the form of long-range ballistic missiles, would be the ideal technology to launch atomic bombs.

During the early 1950s the Soviets achieved extraordinary advances in rocket engineering, completely moving away from the German technology that had served them for the previous decade. In addition to enabling the country to develop the R-7, the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), in 1957, these advances made it possible to realize immediate, non-military applications that Soviet scientists had long desired, such as space exploration. Additionally, Stalin”s death in 1953 led to significant changes in the Soviet chain of command and opened space for innovative decisions. This dynamic had already been occurring within other technologies, and since the early 1950s the Soviets had been distinguishing themselves with pioneering projects for the civilian use of nuclear engineering, resulting in the first experimental nuclear power plant. Similarly, at the suggestion of “a small handful of visionary engineers” on the OKB-1 team of the NII-88, the USSR would gradually institutionalize a project to put an artificial satellite into orbit.

Engineer Mikhail Tikhonravov did much of the basic scientific work that enabled the development of the R-7 missile, while concurrently working privately on many of the technical issues necessary to launch an artificial satellite. By the time the R-7 development had progressed to the concrete stages in 1953, his team was devoting a considerable amount of time to satellite research, trying to identify the type of satellite that could be launched from Earth with the initial version of the R-7, the equipment that might be present on that satellite, the way satellites could be controlled and steered, and the civilian and military objectives that could be met by launching satellites.

At the urging of Sergei Koroliov, the engineer primarily responsible for developing the R-7, Tikhonravov sought to institutionalize his team”s work on satellites, presenting Soviet officials with Western newspaper reports showing U.S. plans to launch a satellite, and with calculations and sketches suggesting that such a goal was within the reach of the USSR, which would be able to orbit a satellite ten times heavier than that planned by the United States. His efforts led the Soviet government to approve, on September 16, 1953, a two-year research program seeking to assess the feasibility of launching artificial satellites and military applications for this technology.

In parallel, aware that Tikhonravov”s work would provide a solid scientific basis for a proposal to put a satellite in orbit, in early 1954 Koroliov sought to garner maximum support, especially from the USSR Academy of Sciences, so that he could present a concrete proposal along these lines. Then, on February 7, Koroliov met with Defense Industry Minister Dmitri Ustínov about the satellite idea, and was promised that he would review a request based on technical documents. Koroliov then asked Tikhonravov to prepare a formal proposal for a satellite launch.

In the months that followed, both scientists sought to consolidate the support of the scientific community and to enlist the support of the military for the project, and a draft memorandum prepared by Tikhonravov was reviewed by members of the Academy of Sciences. Full of technical detail and providing an overview of similar projects being undertaken abroad, it subtly suggested that launching an orbital satellite was an inevitable step in the development of rocket technology for military use. In addition to putting a satellite into orbit, he suggested that the Soviet government support the project to “develop the capabilities to launch a human being on a suborbital flight” and to “recover capsules from earth orbit.

The documents were sent to four key figures, including Minister Ustínov, accompanied by a letter from Koroliov. Copies of them reached Gueorgui Malenkov, then leader of the USSR, who issued a decree authorizing the creation of a modest research and development project, which was carried out by Koroliov and, indirectly, by Tikhonravov, who remained connected with ballistic missile-related projects. During 1954 and 1955 this project was able to increase considerably the technical planning, including initial proposals for at least three satellite models.

In parallel, in 1955 US and European scientists proposed that the International Year of Geophysics (IYG) be held between July 1957 and December 1958, and Dwight Eisenhower announced that the US would launch an artificial satellite during the course of this event, through the Vanguard Project. Due to the political climate of the time, the issue would quickly become a matter of international prestige and strategic positioning. A few days after the American announcement, Koroliov, with the support of Mikhail Khrunitchev and Vasili Riabikov, whom Nikita Khrushchov had charged with overseeing all matters related to long-range strategic missiles, sought to use these new developments on the international stage to finally push through the project he had been pursuing for many years: the launching of an artificial satellite. A new letter, signed by all three, was delivered directly to Khruschov and Nikolai Bulganin, then the country”s top authorities, and had immediate effect. On August 18, 1955, the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR issued a secret decree calling for a project specifying the “necessary steps” for the “creation of an artificial satellite of the Earth” and mobilizing the necessary resources for this task.

As established by the Politburo, over the next few months Koroliov devoted himself to drafting a formal project listing objectives, costs, volume of manpower, contractors that could be used, and a detailed schedule. Numerous meetings were held, with scientists, military personnel, and politicians, in order to settle details and accommodate the interests involved. Once the document was presented, on January 30, 1956 the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR approved the start of work to build and launch an artificial satellite in 1957, initially identified as Object D-1. This satellite would have a mass of one to one thousand four hundred kilograms, and would carry two to three hundred kilograms of scientific instruments. Additionally, it was decided that the military would donate two ballistic missiles for satellite launches, since these launches would allow them to test the operational capabilities of the missiles.

The magnitude and specialization involved in the work meant that it had to be divided among a number of institutions. The USSR Academy of Sciences was responsible for the overall scientific leadership and for providing research instruments; the Ministry of Defense Industry and its main project office, OKB-1, were given the task of building the satellite; the Ministry of Radiotechnical Industry would develop the control system, technical, radio, and telemetry instruments; the Ministry of Shipbuilding Industry would develop gyroscope devices; the Ministry of Machine Construction would develop launch, refueling, and transportation means; and the Ministry of Defense was responsible for conducting the launches.

The preliminary design work was completed in July 1956, as was the definition of the scientific tasks to be performed by the satellite after launch. These would include measuring the density of the atmosphere and its ion composition, the solar wind, the solar magnetic field, and solar cosmic rays, data that would be valuable in the creation of future artificial satellites. A system of ground stations was to be developed to collect data transmitted by the satellite, observe its orbit, and transmit commands to it. Because of the limited time available to the scientists, observations were planned for only seven to ten days, and orbit calculations were not expected to be extremely accurate.

By late 1956 it became clear that the complexity and audacity of the project meant that Object D-1 could not be launched on time, due to supplier delivery delays, difficulties in creating scientific instruments, and the low specific impulse produced by the R-7 engines produced by then (304 seconds instead of the planned 309 to 310 seconds). Consequently, the government rescheduled the launch for April 1958 and Object D-1 would later fly as Sputnik-3.

Fearing that the US would launch a satellite before the USSR, OKB-1 suggested creating and launching a satellite in April-May 1957, before the start of the AIG in July 1957. The new satellite would be simple, light (weighing about a hundred kilograms), and easy to build, dispensing with heavy and complex scientific equipment in favor of simpler instruments, notably a radio transmitter. At least six criteria guided the development of this new design:

On February 15, 1957 the USSR Council of Ministers approved this simple model of satellite, called “PS Object”. This version allowed the satellite to be identified visually by ground observers, and could transmit tracking signals to ground receiver stations. The decision provided for the launch of two satellites, respectively named PS-1 and PS-2 objects, with two modified R-7 rockets, on the condition that this rocket design had made at least two successful test flights.

Launch vehicle

The R-7 rocket was designed by OKB-1, with Sergei Koroliov as its chief designer. Initially conceived as an MBI, the decision to build it had been made by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of Ministers of the USSR on May 20, 1954. The R-7 model was also known by its designation 8K71, which had been assigned to it by the Chief Director of the Soviet Rocket Forces.

The first launch of an R-7 rocket (identified as 8K71 No. 5L) occurred on May 15, 1957. A fire in a solid fuel auxiliary rocket started almost immediately after liftoff, but it continued to fly for 98 seconds after launch until the auxiliary rocket detached from the first stage of the main rocket. The rocket traveled 6,300 kilometers, falling about 3,200 kilometers from the launch site.

Three attempts to launch the second rocket (8K71 No. 6) were made from June 10-11, but an assembly defect in a nitrogen valve prevented the launch. The unsuccessful launch of the third R-7 rocket (8K71 #7) occurred on July 12. An electrical short in the rocket”s control system, caused by a battery, caused the four auxiliary rockets to detach from the main rocket 33 seconds after launch. The R-7 achieved an apogee of twenty thousand meters.

The launch of the fourth rocket (8K71 No. 8) on August 21 at 3:25 p.m. Moscow time was successful. The rocket core lifted a dummy warhead to the target altitude and velocity, re-entered the atmosphere, and broke away at an altitude of ten thousand meters after traveling six thousand kilometers. On August 27 the TASS News Agency issued a statement on the successful launch of a multi-stage, long-distance MBI. The launch of the fifth R-7 rocket (8K71 No. 9) on September 7 was also successful, but the dummy warhead was destroyed on re-entry into the atmosphere and therefore suggested that the rocket lacked improvements to fully fulfill its military purpose related to nuclear attacks.

The tests, however, showed that the rocket was ready to launch a satellite. The rocket was the most powerful in the world and had been purposely designed with excessive thrust, because at the time it was not known precisely how heavy the hydrogen bomb payload would be. This made it particularly suitable for launching an object into orbit. Despite this, Koroliov was once again forced to maneuver, using the delays in the military use of the rocket to push through its use in launching the satellite.

On June 14, 1956 Koroliov decided to adapt the R-7 rocket to the D1 Object, which would later be replaced by the much lighter PS-1 Object. On September 22 a modified R-7 rocket, named Sputnik and indexed as 8K71PS, arrived at the testing ground. Preparations then began for the launch of the PS-1. Compared to the R-7 missiles used in military testing, the mass of the 8K71PS was reduced from 280 tons to 272 tons; its length with the PS-1 was 29.167 meters and its thrust at takeoff was 3.90 mega-newtons.

Launch site

Early on, technicians noted that State Camp #4 at Kapustin Iar in Russia could not handle the launch, and that the camp was too close to radar stations operated by US intelligence in Turkey. A special reconnaissance commission was formed, seeking to identify a new site, which should be away from populated areas but relatively close to the Soviet rail network to allow cargo transportation; away from Soviet borders and where spying by rivals would be made difficult; with a climate that would permit launches throughout most of the year; where there would be room for future extension of facilities; where it would be possible to build numerous radio stations on either side of the trajectory of the missiles launched; and, if possible, at a latitude near the equator.

After the commission conducted lengthy studies and shortlisted three sites, Defense Minister Gueorgui Júkov selected a site near Tiuratam in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic for the construction of a rocket test range, called the 5th Tiuratam Range and at the time also “NIIP-5” and “GIK-5.” The selection was approved by the USSR Council of Ministers on February 12, 1955, but the initial structure of what would become known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome would not be completed until 1958.

Observation Posts

PS-1 was not designed to be controlled; that is, once launched, its operators could not influence its behavior and could only observe it. Initial data at the launch site would be collected by six separate observatories, and then telegraphed to NII-4. Located in Bolshevo, in the vicinity of Moscow, NII-4 was a scientific research arm of the Ministry of Defense, dedicated to missile development. The six observatories were clustered around the launch site, with the closest one within a kilometer of the launch pad.

A second observation complex was established to track the satellite after its separation from the rocket. Called the Command-Measurement Complex, it consisted of the NII-4 coordination center and seven distant stations located along the satellite”s ground track line. The stations were equipped with radar, optical instruments, and communications systems. Data from the stations were transmitted by telegraph to NII-4, where ballistics experts calculated orbital parameters. The observatories used a trajectory measurement system called “Tral”, developed by OKB-MEI (Moscow Energy Institute), by which they received and monitored data from transponders mounted on the main body of the R-7 rocket. The data was useful even after the satellite separated from the rocket”s second stage; the location of Sputnik-1 could be calculated from the location of the second stage, which followed it at a known distance.

Satellite construction

The main builder of Sputnik-1 was Mikhail S. Khomiakov, and its tests were conducted under the leadership of Oleg G. Ivanovski, both of OKB-1. The satellite was shaped like a sphere 580 millimeters in diameter, assembled from two hermetically sealed hemispheres connected by 36 screws. Its mass was 83.6 kilograms. The hemispheres were two millimeters thick and covered by a 1-mm-thick heat shield made of a highly polished aluminum-magnesium-titanium alloy, AMG6T. The satellite carried two pairs of antennas designed by the OKB-1 Antenna Laboratory, headed by Mikhail V. Kraiushkin, at an angle of seventy degrees to each other. Each pair consisted of antennas 2.4 and 3.9 meters long.

Its power supply consisted of three silver-zinc batteries developed at the Research Institute of Power Sources under the leadership of Nikolai S. Lidorenko. Two of these batteries powered the radio transmitter and one powered the temperature regulation system. The batteries had an expected life of two weeks, but in fact ran for 22 days. The power supply was switched on automatically at the moment of separation of the satellite from the second stage of the rocket.

The satellite had a one-watt radio transmitter unit, developed by Viacheslav Lappo of the Moscow Research Institute of Electronics, which worked on two frequencies, 20 005 and 40 002 megahertz, corresponding to wavelengths of approximately fifteen and 7.5 meters. The signals at the first frequency were transmitted in pulses of 0.3 seconds, followed by pauses of the same duration, and then pulses at the second frequency.

In addition to allowing monitoring of the satellite, its radio signals were used to collect information about the electron density in the ionosphere, and about the local atmospheric temperature and pressure. A temperature regulation system contained a fan, a dual thermal switch, and a thermal control switch. When the temperature inside the satellite exceeded 36 degrees Celsius, the fan was turned on; when it dropped below twenty degrees the fan was turned off by the dual thermal switch. When the temperature exceeded fifty or fell below zero degrees, another thermal control switch was activated, changing the duration of the radio signal pulses.

Sputnik-1 was filled with dry nitrogen pressurized to 1.3 atmospheres. Its barometric switch, which would be activated when the pressure inside the satellite fell below 130 kilo-pascals, would indicate pressure failure or meteoroid puncture, and would alter the duration of the radio signal pulse. While attached to the rocket, the satellite was protected by a cone-shaped hood, eighty centimeters high. The cowl was designed to separate from Sputnik and the R-7 second stage at the same time the satellite was ejected.

The Sputnik rocket was launched on October 4, 1957 at 19:28 UTC (October 5 at the launch site), from Site #1 at Tiuratam Field. Its control system was set for an orbit of 223 by 1.45 thousand kilometers, with an orbital period of 101.5 minutes. The trajectory had been calculated by Gueorgui Gretchko, using the mainframe computer of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Telemetry indicated that the auxiliary rockets separated 116 seconds after departure, and the main stage engine shut down at 295.4 seconds. At shutdown, the 7.5-ton main stage with the attached satellite reached an altitude of 223 kilometers above sea level and a velocity vector inclination, relative to the local horizon, of zero degrees and 24 minutes. This resulted in an initial orbit of 223 by 950 kilometers, with an apoast approximately five hundred kilometers lower than intended, and an inclination of 65.1 degrees and a period of 96.2 minutes. Its speed was 28,800 kilometers per hour, which was the highest speed ever achieved by a man-made object.

A fuel regulator failed about sixteen seconds after launch, which resulted in excessive RP-1 consumption for most of the powered flight and engine thrust four percent above nominal. The center stage cut-off was planned for the 296 seconds, but premature fuel depletion caused the thrust to terminate one second earlier, when a sensor detected excessive speed from the empty RP-1 turbine. There were 375 kilograms of liquid oxygen remaining at the cut-off point.

Precisely 19.9 seconds after the engine shutdown, PS-1 separated from the second stage and the satellite transmitter was activated. These signals were detected at the IP-1 station by engineer V. G. Borisov, and the reception of the beeps emitted by Sputnik-1 confirmed its successful deployment. The reception lasted two minutes, until PS-1 plunged into the horizon. The Tral telemetry system on the R-7 main stage continued transmitting and was detected in its second orbit.

In addition to monitoring the satellite, by radio, the rocket”s tracking was designed to be accomplished by visual coverage and radar detection. Test launches of the R-7 had demonstrated that tracking cameras would work correctly up to an altitude of two hundred kilometers, but that radar could locate it for almost five hundred kilometers.

The designers, engineers, and technicians who developed the rocket and satellite watched the launch in person, and then went to a mobile radio station, mounted in a car, to listen to the satellite signals, which came from the Kamtchatka Peninsula but soon disappeared. They waited about ninety minutes, until the signal reappeared from the southwest, confirming that the satellite had completed one orbit and was still transmitting; Koroliov then telephoned Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchov, assuring him of the successful launch. TASS later broadcast an international statement saying that “as a result of large and intensive work of scientific institutes and project agencies,” the first “artificial Earth satellite” had been built, launched, and put into orbit.

The R-7 main stage, with a mass of 7.5 tons and a length of 26 meters, also went into orbit. Reflective panels had been installed on it to increase its visibility and make it easier to track, and this gave it apparent brightness of the first magnitude and allowed it to be seen at night. In addition, it was located and tracked by the British using the Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory, the only telescope in the world capable of doing so by radar.

The satellite, a small polished sphere, had apparent sixth-magnitude brightness, and was therefore barely visible. However, the frequencies on which Sputnik-1 emitted radio waves not only allowed it to be received by existing amateur equipment at the time, but also allowed operators to easily tune into its frequency bands. Accordingly, the Soviet government spoke out publicly, inviting everyone to tape-record the signal transmitted by the satellite.

Consequently, beyond the Soviet Union, Sputnik-1”s signals were tracked by radio stations and amateur radio operators around the world. In its second orbit, its signals were picked up by a BBC monitoring station south of London, in what was the first recorded pickup of the satellite outside the USSR. At almost the same time, U.S. military installations in West Germany picked up and recorded the satellite”s signals, and on October 5 a military laboratory captured recordings of Sputnik-1 during four passes over U.S. territory.

At the time of Sputnik-1”s launch, the U.S. government had been organizing a network of scientists and amateurs to witness the launch of what they believed would be the first satellite to be launched, Vanguard. This network, assembled and coordinated by Operation Moonwatch, included teams of visual observers at 150 stations in the United States and other countries. Upon being notified of the Soviet satellite launch, the U.S. government redirected Moonwatch to identify it in space. However, the satellite was difficult to see, and concerns about its presence over U.S. territory were compounded by the government”s inability to properly identify its trajectory in the first few days after its launch. Although preparations for AIG had led to the creation of the Minitrack System, it operated on the 108 megahertz tracking frequency and could not track Sputnik-1. So the US government appealed to the nation”s radio enthusiast community to provide data to track the satellite while the Minitrack stations were being reconfigured. Sputnik would later be photographed by Canada”s Newbrook Observatory, and a film showing it crossing the sky before dawn would be captured in Baltimore on October 12.

Sputnik-1”s main scientific objectives were to test the method of placing an artificial satellite into Earth orbit in order to advance the other civilian and exploratory objectives of the Soviet space program; to collect data on the density of the atmosphere by analyzing the satellite”s lifetime in orbit; to determine the effects of radio wave propagation in the atmosphere; to test visual and radio methods for monitoring objects in orbit; and to verify the principles of pressurization used on the satellite.

In particular, the success of the Sputnik-1 experiment allowed for several improvements during the launch of Sputnik-2 and the bitch Laika on November 3 of the same year. The satellite acquired data concerning the density of the upper layers of the atmosphere and the propagation of radio signals, including information about the density of electrons in the ionosphere and the local atmospheric temperature and pressure. Because the satellite had been filled with nitrogen under pressure, it also allowed for the first time the detection of meteoroids along its trajectory, since losses in internal pressure due to the penetration of these objects into its surface would be shown in the temperature readings.

Sputnik-1 emitted radio signals for three weeks, until the end of the life of its chemical batteries on October 26, 1957. Although it was inactive, its orbit and behavior continued to be visually monitored. Exactly 92 days after its launch, 1,440 full orbits of the Earth, and a distance covered of about seventy million kilometers, the satellite disintegrated as it entered the thickest layers of the Earth”s atmosphere on January 4, 1958. The R-7 rocket”s center stage had remained in orbit for two months until December 2, 1957.

In Russian language the word “Sputnik” means “satellite” or, more lyrically, “fellow traveler”. During its planning and launch phases, the satellite was referred to internally as PS-1 (Russian: ПС-1), an acronym for Elementary Satellite-1 (Russian: Простейший Спутник-1). Later it would be publicly announced with a mostly descriptive name, Искусственный спутник Земли (romanized Iskusstvenni Sputnik Zemli), which can be translated as “Artificial Earth Satellite” and “Artificial Earth Traveling Companion”. This name would later give way to the shorter version “Sputnik Zemli” (Earth Satellite or Traveling Companion of the Earth) and, especially outside the USSR, simply Sputnik-1. In Russia it is also still called “First Soviet Artificial Earth Satellite”. Its name was officially incorporated into the Portuguese language with the form “Esputinique”, included in the Vocabulário Ortográfico da Língua Portuguesa.

General Repercussion

The launch of Sputnik-1 was met with great surprise and galvanized the interest of governments and populations around the globe. It has been described as a scientific-technical feat of the first magnitude, the first step towards the conquest of outer space and a new chapter in man”s “conquest of the environment. Following its launch it was compared to Christopher Columbus” discovery of America, and continues to be regarded as a historic achievement.

The first artifact to have been placed in orbit around a celestial body, its success resulted from considerable innovations, particularly in the accuracy and payload capacity of Soviet rockets. At the time, the U.S. believed itself to be the closest country to putting a satellite into orbit, and the mass and size of the Soviet satellite were unthinkable in the context of the contemporary U.S. space program. The satellite design being developed by the Americans was far removed from the one that would be built by the Soviets, which was considered “enormous” in comparison. At the time, launching and orbiting “an object the size of a refrigerator” was an achievement that the U.S. “could only dream of,” and in fact the satellite being planned by the U.S. measured only three inches long and weighed about 1.5 kilograms.

As a scientific achievement of particularly impressive proportions, the main immediate effect of the Sputnik-1 launch was to alter the Western view of what was happening east of the Iron Curtain. Until then seen as a backward, rural nation of moderate risk to the Western-implemented regime, the Soviet Union came to be seen as a competent military power and a rival to the one that had emerged as the world”s leading power after the end of World War II, the United States. From then on, the Soviets, thanks to their space pioneerism, and especially with regard to it, began to be viewed with admiration and fear around the planet, including in countries that had broken with the USSR politically.

At a time when anti-communist sentiment was already being strongly encouraged in the countries of American influence, reinforcing the supposed expansive and bellicose nature of communism became a priority. Thus, in these countries the public was often misinformed about the satellite and its implications, and news stories highlighting the Soviet contribution to science were presented along with analysis and commentary reinforcing that the Soviets had technologically surpassed the U.S., that Sputnik would be used politically by the Soviet government, and that the entire world was exposed to Soviet projectile attacks. From the governments” point of view, in the medium and long term the launch of Sputnik-1 led to a series of practical consequences throughout the world, but especially in the USSR itself and the US, the most visible of these being the Space Race and a sharpening of the Cold War.

Particularities in the USSR

Ironically, at first the launch of Sputnik-1 received a quiet response from the government of the Soviet Union. The Soviets had previously behaved particularly discreetly about their previous rocket achievements, fearing that communicating them to the public would lead to the revelation of strategic secrets and flaws that would be exploited by their rivals. Following the same logic, the satellite launch was not initially used politically by the government.

Reports from the time and documents later revealed demonstrate that the Soviet leadership initially insufficiently understood the value of the Sputnik-1 launch, and that in fact its launch owed less to political and military intentions than to the commitment of scientists highly committed to the ideal of space exploration, notably Sergei Koroliov. One account from the time mentions that when informed of the successful launch of Sputnik-1, Nikita Khrushchov, who had been awakened by the phone call, went back to sleep peacefully, indifferent to the implications of this achievement.

However, the USSR quickly came to recognize the potential of the launch, in the wake of the unrest caused in other countries, and began to exploit it in its propaganda. In a context in which the country sought to respond to the disparaging propaganda actively disseminated in the West and to assert itself in the international community, the Soviet government”s propaganda came to emphasize pride in achievement and to argue fundamentally that while the capitalist world claimed that communism did not work and was relegated to technological backwardness, Sputnik-1 proved otherwise. This same argument would be incorporated by other communist nations that had broken with the Moscow regime, such as Yugoslavia.

Thus, the newspaper Pravda began to highlight the achievement on its cover, showing congratulations from foreign governments and claiming that the USSR had beaten the USA in the race to conquer space. Often Soviet propaganda considerably exaggerated the proportions and implications of their achievement, claiming that it was the “greatest victory of human science” to date and “the ultimate result of human ingenuity.” The confidence expressed by the Soviet government was such that it quickly announced its desire to build a space station, and plans to send animals into space and a rocket to the moon. Both of these plans would indeed come to fruition in the next few years, with Sputnik-2 and the Luna-1 probe. Plans such as the manned space station would take much longer to develop, while others, such as an automated lunar base, civilian travel to the planet Mars, and spaceships in the form of flying saucers, would never materialize and may have been just part of government propaganda.

Within this same logic, the Soviet press highlighted the crisis that had been installed in the US government due to the climate of “hysteria” in the country. Premier Khruschov sought to personally exploit the advantages resulting from the conquest, through the international attention and publicity that accompanied it, and humorously commented on the situation that had developed in the U.S. in the wake of Sputnik. In response to uncomfortable American demonstrations of the power of his strategic bombers, he asserted that American war technology, largely dependent on these aircraft, would quickly become obsolete in the face of Soviet innovations, and that his country would only have to replace the cargo carried by its intercontinental ballistic missiles. Khruschov would also press Koroliov to launch a new satellite to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, and that came to fruition with the PS-2, commonly known as Sputnik-2.

Realization of the value of the Soviet space program evidently led to more investment in the sector, but also to greater recognition of the important role played by Sergei Koroliov in the program and its fruits. For fear that he would be assassinated by foreign powers, his identity would remain a state secret until after his untimely death in 1966 during the Leonid Brezhnev administration. Similarly, the Soviet government actively sought to protect the technological secrets involved in the launch of Sputnik, particularly the rocket that carried it into orbit. This involved the use of disinformation in the form of spreading incorrect data about the technology used. This strategy proved effective, and in fact the R-7 rocket project remained a secret until the late 1960s.

Special Features in the USA

Initially the US government sought to show no surprise at Sputnik-1, and downplayed the episode with a low-key, almost dismissive response. Eisenhower publicly expressed satisfaction that the USSR would test the as yet uncertain legal status of orbital satellite overflights, and, in fact, the US had created Project Vanguard and the goal of launching a satellite during the AIG precisely in order to set the precedent for a “freedom of space” that would allow the launch of spy satellites.

However, the claim that the launch of Sputnik had come as no surprise was only intended to keep up appearances. In fact in the previous decades the U.S. government had received several signals that the USSR might eventually put a satellite into orbit: in November 1953 the president of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Alexander Nesmeianov, had publicly mentioned that “science” had advanced to the point where it was possible to plan to send rockets to the Moon and create an artificial satellite of the Earth; two days after the American announcement that it planned to launch a satellite during the IGA, Leonid Sedov had informed scientists at an international conference that his country planned to launch a satellite in less than two years; in September 1956, at an IGA preparatory conference, another member of the Academy had informed that the USSR would launch a satellite during the IGA and listed the objectives of its mission; in May, June, July, and August 1957 the Soviet government distributed among the amateur radio community a project for the construction of amateur radioreceivers, to “listen to an artificial Moon, which will transmit on the 7.5 and 15 m wavelengths”; in June 1957 Nesmeianov had announced to the Soviet press that a satellite would be launched within the next few months, and the AIG committee had been informed that the Soviet satellite was ready; and finally, in August 1957 the USSR had confirmed that it had successfully tested its R-7 missiles. However, these indications were largely ignored, as the U.S. government refused to believe that the USSR possessed such technology. Only after receiving convincing evidence from the Jodrell Bank Observatory would Washington accept that the USSR did in fact possess an operational intercontinental ballistic missile and launch a satellite.

The coolness of the Eisenhower administration”s reaction greatly underestimated the perceptions of its foreign allies. A White House report shortly after the launch of Sputnik-1 clearly indicated that the Soviet claim of scientific and technological superiority over the West and especially the United States had gained “much wider acceptance”; that the “credibility of Soviet propaganda” had been “greatly enhanced; that the perception prevailed that American prestige had suffered “a great blow”; that there was clear concern among American allies that military supremacy had moved or was about to move “in favor of the USSR”; and that the fears of “friendly countries” were exacerbated by the behavior of the American government, “so marked by concern, uneasiness, and intense interest.

Likewise, the U.S. government”s attempts to downplay the Soviet achievement and demonstrate emotional detachment contrasted sharply with the admiration and awe with which the Soviet achievement was received by the American people and media, and had little effect in reducing the apprehension that gripped public debate. Major media outlets such as Newsweek and Time magazines immediately saw Sputnik as an “impressive scientific feat” but also “an ominous event” for the US in the context of the Cold War. Life magazine referred to Sputnik as “the feat that shook the Earth,” noting that it had “shocked” Americans. Several other publications compared the launch of Sputnik-1 to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941. Despite indications that the USSR planned to launch a satellite soon, and estimates that the first U.S. satellite would not be ready for launch until early 1958, the U.S. government had made it clear to the public through its propaganda efforts that it would be the first to put a satellite in orbit. Moreover, American rhetoric had historically asserted the country”s military and technological superiority over the rest of the world, and naturally the American people and media wondered why the country had been beaten in the race for space.

At least part of the problem centered on the perception, widely held among the American government and people, of their superiority and the technological inferiority of the USSR. U.S. President Harry Truman famously referred to the Russians as “those Asians” and on one occasion publicly asked himself “do you know when Russia will build a bomb? Never.” Later on, the joke spread in the USA that the USSR could never carry an atomic bomb to the USA in a suitcase, because “for that they would need to have a good suitcase”. Destroyed more than any other country during World War II, the USSR faced colossal challenges in terms of housing, food and other basic needs, and the launch of Sputnik-1 effectively came as a surprise to Americans, who wondered how they could have been outclassed by the Russians. Later, a senior politician would recall that the Soviet satellite launch “hit” the U.S. “like a brick through a plate-glass window, shattering the American illusion of technological superiority over the Soviet Union.

Although the U.S. government was confident that Sputnik-1 itself offered no direct risk to the U.S., both the government and the American people were aware of the military implications made concrete by the satellite launch. The weight of Sputnik-1 meant that the Soviets had developed a missile more powerful than any of the rockets tested in the U.S. and corroborated that in fact the Soviets possessed an operational intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying atomic bombs; the fact that the Soviets placed Sputnik in a precise orbit meant that the USSR had solved a number of problems in missile guidance and navigation technology that were critical to being able to strike precise targets in U.S. territory; the satellite could be the precursor to a series of devices that would monitor the United States with great precision. The problem, therefore, was mainly the rocket that had put Sputnik-1 into orbit, and not so much the satellite itself.

The sequence of events triggered by the rocket virtually paralyzed the U.S. government. Although some experts considered the reaction of the American public to be worse than the news of the Soviet launching of the satellite, Dwight Eisenhower was secretly angered by the wear and tear generated by the affair and saw his popularity plummet. The episode came to be dubbed the “Sputnik Crisis,” and, in reference to the near panic that ensued, Eisenhower would later say that “the light” from the Sputnik-1 launch was “blinding. Over the next two months the crisis would be further exacerbated by the Soviet launch of Sputnik-2, whose mass was approximately five times greater and which carried a live animal; and by the televised failure of the attempted launch of Vanguard TV-3, watched by millions of Americans on December 6, 1957.

Allied with the UK, the American reaction to this crisis was concentrated on two fronts, scientific and political, and had deep and long-term implications that, in American historiography, since its time have acquired contours clearly defined by American exceptionalism, i.e., they were presented in a way that emphasized the extraordinary characteristics of the USA and its capacity to triumph in the face of adversity and rivals. Among the events reputed to be direct consequences of the Sputnik Crisis were the priority treatment given to Project Explorer, which would launch the first American satellite in late January 1958; the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in February 1958, responsible for technological projects for military purposes, initially mainly in the aerospace sector; the reformulation of NACA, which from July 29, 1958, became NASA; a further overhaul of the American educational system, deemed inadequate in comparison with the Soviet one, and an increase in U.S. government spending on research and education in physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, and earth sciences, including science education programs from the earliest school years.

The scientific consequences of the Sputnik-1 launch are far-reaching and continue to be felt into the 21st century. Because it was the “spark” that precipitated the development of satellite communication, contemporary technologies such as Google Earth, satellite navigation systems, the Internet, and teleconferencing systems are among the most well-known and visible elements of this legacy, and every artificial satellite can be considered a direct descendant of Sputnik-1.

At the other end of its legacy are less notorious but more immediately dependent contributions, such as the gathering of previously unavailable information about the composition, temperature, pressure and presence of meteors in the atmosphere, and the fact that, due to its instruments, Sputnik-1 was also the first scientific experiment in orbit. Similarly, by means of its radio pulse control system, which allowed it to transmit information about local conditions, its operators made the first attempts at telemetry in space.

Sputnik-1 also kick-started the development of the Soviet space industry, whose structure differed considerably from its Western counterparts in the diversity and complementarity of its research and development institutions, but also in that it focused exclusively on the space sector, to the detriment of the air sector. For this reason, while their foreign counterparts can be defined as part of the aerospace industry, contemporary Russia and Ukraine have mainly space industries.

On a cultural level, the attention raised by Sputnik-1 immediately led to its name being used in other contexts and indicating other objects, notably in the English language. Thus, in golf the name Sputnik came to indicate a very high drive launched from the tee, and also to designate stars of the entertainment and sports industry, individual musical bands and musicians, an architectural style, a ballet, a racehorse, and companies. Contemporary examples include the Sputnikmusic website and the computer network management company SputnikNet, both American, and the New Zealand public relations agency Sputnik. The launch of Sputnik-1 also led to the appearance of the suffix -nik in the English language, and notably gave rise to terms such as neatnik (someone compulsively well-dressed) and peacenik (a pacifist). The American writer Herb Caen was inspired by the satellite when coining the term beatnik, in an article about the beat generation in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 1958.

Numerous products were called Sputnik, including confections, cocktails, hamburgers, haircut models, fly swatter equipment, furniture and decorative pieces, songs, and paintings. Composite expressions also appeared, such as “Sputnik diplomacy,” “Sputnik shock,” and “Sputnik fiasco,” some used until many decades later.

The same was true in the USSR and later in Russia, where the name Sputnik and the satellite image came to be used commercially. Although no trademarks existed in the USSR, and consequently no trademark for Sputnik-1 was officially registered, many consumer goods and institutions came to be called Sputnik, including bicycles, vacuum cleaners, razors, hotels, magazines, and even a state youth tourism agency. In contemporary Russia, the city of Kaluga, the birthplace of Konstantin Tsiolkovski, features a small Sputnik-1 on its flag. Additionally, Sputnik is a government news agency of international scope.

Representations in the arts

Sputnik-1 is depicted or mentioned in a number of artistic works, including Philip Kaufman”s 1983 film The Right Stuff, itself an adaptation of Tom Wolfe”s 1979 book of the same name; Disney Pixar”s 1999 animated film Toy Story 2; and Joe Johnston”s 1999 film October Sky. The satellite also continues to be commemorated on postage stamps in numerous countries, and in 2007 was the subject of a documentary film directed by David Hoffman, entitled Sputnik Mania.

Spare and replica units

There are at least two duplicates of Sputnik-1, apparently built as backup units. One is on the outskirts of Moscow, in the corporate museum of the Energia company, the current descendant of Koroliov”s research institution. The other is in the Museum of Flight in Seattle, USA. Unlike the Energia unit, it has no internal components, but has molded casings and accessories, and evidence of wear on its battery, which suggest that it was built to serve some kind of use. Authenticated by the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, the unit was auctioned in 2001 and purchased by an anonymous private buyer, who donated it to the museum. Two other duplicates of Sputnik-1 are reported to be in the personal collections of American businessmen.

In 1959 the Soviet Union donated a replica of Sputnik-1 to the United Nations, and there are other replicas of it, with varying degrees of accuracy, on display around the world, including at the National Air and Space Museum in the US, the Science Museum in England, the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Australia, and in front of the Russian Embassy in Spain.

Three replicas of Sputnik-1, built in a scale of 1


  1. Sputnik-1
  2. Sputnik 1
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