Today, the world is commemorating another year since the day the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth was launched. Sixty years later, Sputnik 1 is still one of the most important breakthroughs that humanity and the scientific community feel proud of.
Some people could say today that Sputnik is not a big deal, seeing all the technological advances humans have accomplished. However, for that time, it was an amazing achievement — and the Soviet Union knew that, too. Sputnik became a major triumph, as it showcased the country’s military and technological progress. Of course, the satellite’s deepest details were hidden from the world for a few decades in order to protect the Soviet’s place in the Space Race.
The first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik, was launched by the Soviets on October 4, 1957, and created by Sergei Korolyov. It was a small metal-sphere of just 58 centimeters (23 inches) of diameter, with four external radio antennas that allowed the satellite to send radio pulses in two different frequencies.
In a statement from the same Sergei Korolyov, he told the media that he picked that shape for Sputnik because “the Earth is a sphere”, so the first satellite delivered by the Earth’s citizens “also must have a spherical shape.”
Sputnik could travel around Earth at a 65° of inclination, orbiting the planet once every 98 minutes. It ranged an altitude between 140 miles at its lowest and 600 miles at its highest point. It only lasted three months until it was burned in the atmosphere.
Another great aspect about the satellite was that every person owning a simple radio receiver could detect the signals that it sent every time it beeped.
Unfortunately, the Americans were not entirely happy with the Soviets launching the first Satellite to space. This generated more conflicts between the two countries and triggered the Space Race. The launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments for both countries.
The development of Sputnik 1
In a time when the world saw tense relations between the US and the URSS during the Cold War, the Soviets decided to focus on creating the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, able to deliver a hydrogen warhead to the U.S. Sergei Korolyov, a visionary scientist and an astute manager, started testing the R-7 missile in 1975 until it was developed that same year.
Korolyov not only led the team that created the R-7. After he informed the Kremlin that the US had plans to send a satellite to orbit the planet, he received all the support from the government to develop it first himself. Then, he used his own rocket to launch the Sputnik 1 to space from a site in Kazakhstan — a part of the Soviet Union at the time. That place is now the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
The Soviets, at first, didn’t plan for such a simple satellite as Sputnik. They had envisioned something more advanced and impressive. However, their time was running out, as the US was taking the lead of the Space Race.
Cathy Lewis, a curator of international space programs at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., suggested that the Soviets wanted something very fast because they felt under pressure. On October 4, 1957, they finally launched the satellite.
“They needed something very simple,” she told Space.com. “There was panic, for the first time that harsh reality of the fear of nuclear weapons landing came to life. You were not going to have a warning of fleets of bombers.”
That same day, at 8:07 p.m. on a Friday night in Riverhead, Long Island, something very particular, never seen before, happened. Operators at an RCA Communications outpost started receiving a unique signal from the space: a continuous beep over short-wave radios. This was the moment that Americans realized that the Soviets launched an artificial satellite to space.
The Soviets continued impressing the world with the Sputnik 2
The excitement and hopefulness the Soviets felt filled them with joy and new impressive ideas, leading them to start again and work harder than ever.
To celebrate the November 7 anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets ordered Korolyov to launch another new satellite to space. Korolyov and his team spent less than a month developing the Sputnik 2, which they proceeded launching on November 3.
This new satellite weighed about 508 kilograms (1,120 pounds), and for the first time, it carried a passenger inside: the famous Laika, the female dog. Unfortunately, she died at the moment of the launch due to the heat. But this proved that living beings could survive in space.
“The U.S. had an image of the Soviets as being technologically limited,” said Matt Bille, a historian and author of “The First Space Race” (Texas A&M University Press, 2004). “If not outright backward. While the military had some of this sentiment, the August launch of an R-7 had generally awakened them.”
Source: The Washington Post