Fellow Traveler

Fifty years ago this month, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik 1, the world's first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite. Shocked into action, the U.S. ramped up its space program—and its science education.


Sputnik 1

National Space Science Data Center, NASA

One floodlit midnight in early October 1957, beside the river Syr Darya in the Republic of Kazakhstan—while office workers in New York were taking their afternoon break—Soviet rocket scientists were launching a two-foot-wide, polished aluminum sphere into Earth orbit. By the time New Yorkers sat down to dinner, the sphere had completed its second full orbit, and the Soviets had informed Washington of their triumph: Sputnik 1, humanity's first artificial satellite, was tracing an ellipse around Earth every ninety-six minutes, reaching a peak altitude of nearly 600 miles.

The next morning; October 5, a report of the satellite's ascent appeared in Pravda, the ruling Communist Party's official newspaper. ("Sputnik," by the way, simply means "satellite" or, more generally, "fellow traveler.") Following a few paragraphs of straight facts, Pravda adopts a celebratory tone and ends on a note of undiluted propaganda:

The successful launching of the first man-made earth satellite makes a most important contribution to the treasure-house of world science and culture.… Artificial earth satellites will pave the way to interplanetary travel and apparently our contemporaries will witness how the freed and conscientious labor of the people of the new socialist society makes the most daring dreams of mankind a reality.

The space race between Uncle Sam and the Reds had begun. Round one had ended in a knock out. Ham radio operators could track the satellite's persistent beeps at 20.005 megacycles and vouch for its existence. Birdwatchers and stargazers alike could see the shiny little ball with their binoculars.

And that was only the beginning: the Soviet Union won not only round one but nearly all the other rounds as well. Yes, in 1969 America put the first man on the Moon. But let's curb our enthusiasm and look at the Soviet Union's achievement during the first three decades of the Space Age.

Besides launching the first artificial satellite, the Soviets sent the first animal into orbit (Laika, a stray dog), the first human being (Yuri Gagarin, a military pilot), the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova, a parachutist), and the first black person (Arnaldo Tamayo-Méndez, a Cuban military pilot). The Soviets sent the first multiperson crew and the first international crew into orbit. They made the first space walk, launched the first space station, and were the first to put a manned space station into long-term orbit.

They were also the first to orbit the Moon, the first to land an unmanned capsule on the Moon, the first to photograph earthrise from the Moon, the first to photograph the far side of the Moon, the first to put a rover on the Moon, and the first to put a satellite in orbit around the Moon. They were the first to land on Mars and the first to land on Venus. And whereas Sputnik 1 weighed 184 pounds and Sputnik 2 (launched a month later) weighed 1,120 pounds, the first satellite America had planned to send aloft weighed slightly more than three pounds. Most ignominious of all, when the United States tried its first actual launch after Sputnik—in early December 1957—the rocket burst into flames at the (suborbital) altitude of three feet.

In July 1955, from a podium at the White House, President Eisenhower's press secretary had announced America's intention to send "small" satellites into orbit during the International Geophysical Year (July 1957 through December 1958). A few days later a similar announcement came from the chairman of the Soviet space commission, who maintained that the first satellites shouldn't have to be all that small and that the U.S.S.R. would send up a few of its own in the "near future."

And so it did.

In January 1957, the Soviet missile maven and ultra-persuasive space advocate Sergei Korolev (never referred to in the Soviet press by name) warned his government that America had declared its rockets to be capable of flying "higher and farther than all the rockets in the world," and that "the U.S.A. is preparing in the nearest months a new attempt to launch an artificial Earth satellite and is willing to pay any price to achieve this priority." His warning worked. In the spring of 1957, the Soviets began testing precursors to orbiting satellites: intercontinental ballistic missiles that could loft a 200-pound payload.

On August 21, their fourth try, they succeeded. Missile and payload made it all the way from Kazakhstan to Kamchatka—some 4,000 miles. TASS, the official Soviet news agency, uncharacteristically announced the event-to the world:

A few days ago a super-long-range, intercontinental multistage ballistic missile was launched.… The flight of the missile took place at a very great, hitherto unattained, altitude. Covering an enormous distance in a short time, the missile hit the assigned region. The results obtained show that there is the possibility of launching missiles into any region of the terrestrial globe.

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