Sputnik 1 was the first satellite ever to reach orbit, launched by the Soviet Union from its spaceport in Kazakhstan on October 4, 1957. The launch was a major shock in the West, which had assumed it enjoyed a comfortable range of technological superiority over the Communist bloc.
- Design and Construction -
In 1954, shortly after Joseph Stalin's death began to free up the stifling Soviet bureaucracy, the Soviet defence ministry began considering the prospects of launching a satellite into Earth orbit. This preceded by a year the announcement by U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower intended his country to do the same, but it took until the latter announcement to convince the Kremlin that space travel might actually have some political importance.
Over the next three years, a secretive Soviet research program began developing a satellite; the blueprints, for a research and transmission satellite, proved far too ambitious and became the framework for Sputnik 3. In the meantime, fearing that the U.S. might beat them into space, the Soviets designed a hasty alternative: a simplistic, 200-pound spherical satellite with four stretching antennae, fastened atop a modified R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile, itself the first such type of missile ever built.
The satellite itself was just two inches across, and did not carry the scientific monitoring instruments the Soviet designers had originally hoped. Instead, it carried just two packages: a set of large batteries, and a radio transmitter. Rather than conduct actual scientific research in orbit, Sputnik 1 would be a demonstrator only: an object launched into space capable of sending signals back to Earth.
- Spaceflight -
At 7:28 p.m. local time on October 4, 1957, the R-7 missile, with Sputnik onboard, launched from the Soviet rocket testing facility, now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome and located in Kazakhstan. The launch went precisely as planned, and Sputnik settled into an elliptical orbit ranging from 150 at its closest to 500 miles at its farthest from the surface of the Earth, circling the planet every hour and a half.
As it orbited, Sputnik sent out its characteristic message, consisting of a simple, repetitive beep heard below, as it circled the Earth.
Sputnik contained no propulsion mechanism and therefore could not adjust its orbit in order to stay in space. It achieved nearly 1500 orbits before, as expected, re-entering the atmosphere on January 4, 1958, and entirely burning up as it descended.
- Legacy -
The success of Sputnik 1 proved of enormous prestige value to the Communist government in Moscow: it had proved, to skeptics, that on at least some occasions it could master technology the Americans had not. The U.S. space project, codenamed Vanguard, had not yet achieved the capacity to send a craft into orbit, and their failure to do so before the Soviets sparked a lasting critique of Western scientific research and education. American efforts were hastily accelerated, and Explorer 1 reached orbit just three months later, in January 1958.
Today, there can be no real argument that the most sophisticated spacecraft are constructed by the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe. In 1957, however, that was not the case. Sputnik had announced the beginning of the Space Age.