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Sputnik I: How the First Soviet Artificial Satellite Caused an American Panic

It was the distant echoey beeping that went around the world – figuratively and very much literally. On 4th October 1957, mankind took a giant stride forward that changed not only the world but the perceived constraints that have shackled the human race’s insatiable appetite to explore the universe. 

When Sputnik’s now-iconic beeping was first heard back on Earth as the small satellite orbited the planet, it provided an array of emotions for mankind, often depending on which part of the world you lived in. 

For the Soviet Union, it was a historic moment that underpinned their place as the preeminent space-age superpower of the time. For the USA, grudging respect at such an achievement, mixed the very real fear that the small object travelling far above the United States might one day be capable of carrying a weapon of absolute destruction – if it wasn’t already that is. For everybody else, probably a mixture of the two. This was one of the most astonishing achievements humans had ever accomplished, but coming at a time of increasing fear and paranoia, it was an accomplishment tinged with suspicion. 

Would this herald the beginning of glorious human adventures into the cosmos or simply the opening salvos of the inevitable militarization of space? The world gasped in awe, but most knew that Sputnik was just the start. The start of what, nobody was quite sure. 

The Race Begins

It’s difficult to imagine that ten years earlier the Soviet Union and the United States had fought together to rid Europe of the scourge of Nazism, but by the mid-1950s, competition and suspicion between the two global titans had already reached its tipping point.

With Europe divided and the democracy vs communism debate heating up around the world, the stage was set for the ideological battle that would consume the planet for the next 35 years. Of course, things were well underway by this point, the Berlin Blockade between 1948 and 1949 had already left bitterness between the two nations, while the appearance of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear bomb in 1949 had ratcheted up tensions even further. 

But while the U.S and the Soviet Union never actually fought each other, the technological battle that would be the Space Race held the world in fascination for nearly two decades until the U.S landed on the moon in 1969, with the Soviet space program imploding in its wake. 

In July 1955, U.S President Dwight D Eisenhower announced U.S intentions to put an artificial satellite into space during the International Geophysical Year which would run from 1st July 1957 to 31st December 1958. As you would have it, the Soviets made the same announcement just 4 days later – what a coincidence. With both having publicly stated their aims, the starting gun had been fired – which nation would be the first into the heavens. Bragging rights on a global scale were now up for grabs.      


Object D 

On 30th January 1956 the Council of Ministers, which sounds about as communistic as you can possibly get, formally approved the Soviet plan to launch an artificial Earth-orbiting satellite sometime in 1957. Then known as Object D, early designs called for a weight of 1,000 to 1,400 kg (2,200 to 3,100 lb) along with 200 to 300 kg (440 to 660 lb) worth of scientific instruments.

Things moved quickly and the structural form of Object D began to emerge as 1956 progressed, but as the year drew to a close, it became clear to engineers that the array of scientific instruments that would measure the density of the atmosphere and its ion composition, the solar wind, magnetic fields, and cosmic rays would not be ready in time in time for the proposed launch in 1957. The departure was grudgingly put back until the following year. 


This is probably where I should add that Object D was not Sputnik, but went on to become Sputnik 3 launched in May 1958. At first, it seemed that the Soviets were willing to simply delay their first launch but with the looming prospect of the Americans beating them to it, Soviet authorities ordered a smaller, more lightweight satellite be assembled to pip the Yankees into space. This was Sputnik. 

The new model was a far cry from what had first been designed. Gone were the complex scientific instruments, all Sputnik really needed was a radio transmitter to prove to the world that it was indeed travelling above the Earth. It was also significantly slimmed down, with the final version coming in at just 100 kg (220 lb) and was the size of a beach ball, measuring 58 cm (23 inches) in diameter. This beach ball was two separate hemispheres, both 2 mm (0.07 inches) thick, with an airtight seal of O-rings along with 36 bolts joining the two pieces. Over these hemispheres was a polished 1 mm (0.03 inches) thick heat shield made of an aluminium-magnesium–titanium alloy. 

Sputnik also came with two double-barreled antennas, 2.4 and 2.9 metres (7.9 and 9.5 ft) in length, designed to spring out to a 35-degree angle after separation in space and a power source that consisted of three silver-zinc batteries. Two batteries would power the 3.5 kg (7.7 lb) radio transmitter, while the third would take care of the temperature regulation system used if the temperatures exceeded 36 °C (97 °F) or fell below 20 °C (68 °F) and included a fan, a dual thermal switch, and a control thermal switch. If the temperature extremes went above 50 °C (122 °F) or below 0 °C (32 °F), the control thermal switch would activate and change the duration of the radio signal pulses heading back down to Earth.      


But let’s be honest, this metallic beach ball of a satellite was going absolutely nowhere unless it got a significant leg up into space. Sputnik couldn’t be controlled in any way, only observed, and the plan was to strap it on to one of the gargantuan beasts that the Soviet Union had been developing – the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  

The fate of the proposed Sputnik mission rested entirely on the successful test launch of the R-7 beforehand – or rather two successful tests. The R-7 was the latest incarnation of a series of designs that you probably won’t be surprised to hear started with the R-1, an almost exact copy of the German V-2 weapon, which entered service in 1950. 

The R-7 would eventually become a giant hulking missile weighing 280 tons with the final version that carried the Soyuz mission into space in 1966 reaching 49.3 metres (161.7 ft) in height. But everything was scaled down for the Sputnik mission and the R-7 that eventually carried the historic satellite into space was heavily modified and measured just 29.16 metres (95.6 ft) from engines to the nose. 

Things began badly for the modified R-7 which crashed or failed to launch on its first five attempts. On 15th May 1957, a fire erupted within one of its engines even before it was off the launch pad. Another rocket failed to launch on three separate attempts between 10th and 11th June, while the fifth crashed shortly after take-off on 12th July 1957, landing around 7 km (4.3 miles) from the launch site. With the clock ticking, and Soviet scientists and engineers under enormous pressure to deliver what would be quite a coup for the USSR, each failure must have been utterly demoralising. 

But you’d be surprised what can happen when you light a fire under an engineering team or threaten them with an extended vacation in the Gulag. On 21st August 1957, an R-7 soared into the sky above the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan travelling to a height of 10 km (6.2 mi) and reaching a speed of 6,000 km (3,700 mi). The next launch, on 7th September, was also successful and though several changes were still needed until the militarized version of the R-7 was ready, the rocket had been cleared to take earth’s first satellite into space. 


I should add here that while the U.S had been relatively open about their intended space exploits and testing, the Soviet Union had been the complete opposite. None of the failed R-7 launches had been publicized out of fear of negative publicity and the Soviets kept the entire program well under wraps until it was sure of success. 

Despite the successful testing, nothing was being taken for granted as Sputnik was attached to the R-7 rocket and prepared for launch on 4th October 1957. As the mighty rocket engines roared into life, those watching held their breath, a moment of history, potentially, now lay just 90 minutes away. 

The four first-stage boosters included on the R-7, blocks B, V, G and D burst into life shortly before the scheduled take-off of 10.29 pm Moscow Time. All appeared to be running smoothly as the behemoth lifted steadily off from Site No 1 at Baikonur and gradually began to gain altitude. But just 6.5 seconds into the launch, something went wrong. The rocket began to pitch as a result of block G reaching its intended thrust levels later than expected. In response, steering engines No. 2 and No 4 on the core stage rotated 8 degrees, Block V and D rotated as much as 17-18 degrees each, and tail air rudders rotated 10 degrees, all trying desperately to compensate for the increasing pitch. 

As time ticked towards the moment the flight control system would terminate the launch, hope began to fade. But with a remarkable stroke of luck, 18 seconds after lift-off, the R-7 finally regained its planned trajectory, mere seconds before the flight was to be aborted. 

As planned, the strap on boosters detached after 116 seconds and the core stage engine cut out after 295.4 seconds, with the rocket at an altitude of 223 km (139 mi) above sea level, and travelling at a speed of 7,780 m/s (25,500 ft/s). 

19.9 seconds after the engine cut out, Sputnik detached from the second stage and its transmitter was activated. Back on Earth, Junior Engineer-Lieutenant V.G. Borisov, stationed at the IP-1 observation station close to the launch site, was the first to hear the sound that changed the world – beep, beep, beep – the world’s first satellite had safely made it into orbit.     

Reaction and the Sputnik Crisis

As I mentioned at the start of the video, the news of Sputnik’s successful launch made enormous waves around the world. The Soviets who had kept their cards close to their chest during construction and launch now gleefully presented it to the world as an example of Soviet technical brilliance. Although, saying that, it did take them a few days to really get up to speed with the historic moment. The day after the launch there was hardly any news on the event from within the Soviet Union, but this quickly changed as news began circling the globe.  

The radio transmission could be picked up by amateur radio users around the world and suddenly millions were enthralled by the beeping coming from space and the distant spot that orbited the Earth once every 96 minutes. People gathered outside, searching the skies until they found Sputnik racing through the stars. However, what most people didn’t realise was that they were usually seeing the R-7 rocket that was accompanying Sputnik in orbit. Sputnik itself was almost certainly too small to be seen by the human eye and the R-7 had had a special coating added to help it reflect the sunlight better. But I’m sure most people wouldn’t have cared less anyway, the concept of any man-made object travelling around the Earth was groundbreaking enough.   

But one nation that was shaken to the core was the United States. A country experiencing a 1950s heyday that had seen enormous opportunities and possibilities open up for those across the socio-economic spectrum. The nation was booming and a sense of invincibility, and dare I say arrogance, had settled in. The idea that a country as strong and impressive as the U.S could be beaten by the still backward Soviet Union, was barely given a second thought before Sputnik’s launch. 

That all changed when American radio sets began to pick up Sputnik’s beeping. The feeling of defeat was compounded by the lack of knowledge regarding the first satellite into space. The American government only had a vague idea of what was passing above them and it didn’t take long for rumours that it might be carrying weapons to emerge.  

Shortly after the launch, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Astronomy Department began using an interferometer to measure signals from the satellite to gain a better idea of its size. When this information came back and with its subsequent publication in Nature journal, the reality became a little clearer. This was not a huge satellite carrying weapons, but a metallic beach ball that beeps. 

But Pandora’s box had been opened and a series of frankly hysterical articles and news reports, some from the uber-trusted New York Times, created near hysteria as they greatly exaggerated not only Sputnik’s capabilities but what might come next. The mainstream media, no doubt eager to capitalize on the story of the decade, sowed an air of panic that would take some time to fully dissipate. It was a period in the USA that came to be known as the Sputnik Crisis.  

Things got even worse for the U.S when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 2, containing a dog named Laika which became the first living being in space, on 3rd November 1957. This was then followed on 6th December 1957, by the disastrous televised launch of the Vanguard TV-3 which managed to gain an altitude of 1.2 m (four feet) before falling back onto its launch pad and exploding. The score was the Soviet Union 2, the USA 0. 


But as we know, the launch of Sputnik spurred the United States on to great things – eventually. In February 1958, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (later the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA) was formed and NASA formally came into being in October the same year – although its precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, had been around since 1915.   

The Americans did manage to get a satellite into space on 1st February 1958 with its Explorer 1 and remarkably, just over ten years later, Neil Armstrong took his one small step on the surface of the moon. If the U.S had found themselves behind in the early stages, they burst past on the home stretch. 

As for Sputnik, the intrepid little satellite continued transmitting for 22 days but continued to circle the Earth for just over two more months as its orbit began to decay, meaning it was dragged closer and closer to the Earth. On 4th January 1958, the end came for this historic metal beach ball as it finally burnt up while breaching our fiery atmosphere.

There was a lot said about Sputnik after its launch but most tended to completely skip over the fact that this satellite was remarkably simple. Many got carried away with the nonsense that it might be carrying weapons or about the fear of the future, but Sputnik was small and relatively rudimentary. The Soviet’s had won the race into space because of its simplicity. Had they waited for Objective D to be launched the following year with its complex instruments, it may well have been the Americans with the winning rosette. 

The Soviets had stripped everything down to the bare minimum to win this race and this tiny, lightweight explorer proved to be exactly what was needed. The name Sputnik is one that mankind will never forget.    

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