50 years ago a Soviet R-7 missile sat on its launch pad at its Tyuratam Cosmodrome. The R-7 missile was the creation of Sergei Korolev, a name not known to the western world for many years thereafter. Originally designed to carry a multi-ton nuclear warhead, this missile was carrying another of Korolev’s creations: a 23 inch diameter sphere of polished aluminum. Attached to the sphere were four long whip antennae. Inside the sphere were temperature and pressure sensors, batteries, and two radio transmitters. The transmitters were designed to emit beeps with the temperature and pressure data encoded in the beeps. Broadcasting at 20MHz and 40MHz, the beeps could easily be detected by amateur radio operators. The name of the sphere was ÐŸÑ€Ð¾ÑÑ‚ÐµÐ¹ÑˆÐ¸Ð¹ Ð¡Ð¿ÑƒÑ‚Ð½Ð¸Ðº-1 (or Elementary Co-traveler-1). The satellite name Ð¡Ð¿ÑƒÑ‚Ð½Ð¸Ðº is written in English as Sputnik. It was launched into space, to become Earth’s very first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957.
Sputnik-1 was not Korolev’s original choice for the first man-made object to be put into Earth orbit. He, like Wernher von Braun, had long dreamed of extending the capabilities of his rockets to launch a payload into space. As early as May 26, 1954, Korolev had made a proposal to his superiors that an R-7 missile be modified to launch a payload into orbit around Earth. The proposal languished in the Soviet bureaucracy, though, until US President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced on July 29, 1955, that the United States of America intended to launch an artificial Earth orbiting satellite sometime during the International Geophysical Year that ran from July 1, 1957, through December 31, 1958. Within about a week, Korolev’s proposal was approved. Korolev’s original plan was to construct a massive heavily instrumented craft of mass in excess of one metric ton. However, the United States was making progress with its Vanguard program, so Korolev agreed to hurriedly build a much smaller satellite as an initial test of the R-7 missile as an orbital launch vehicle. This simpler vehicle became Sputnik-1, and it was launched not much more than a month after conception. A much larger payload was launched only a month later, on November 3, 1957, as Sputnik-2, with the dog Laika aboard. Both Sputnik-1 and Sputnik-2 were primarily missions designed to show the prowess of the Soviet Union’s launch technology rather than as science missions like Korolev’s originally proposed satellite. Korolev’s original plan for an Earth-orbiting satellite finally saw form on May 15, 1958, with the launch of Sputnik-3.
At the time, the Soviet leaders did not at once realize the significance of Sputnik. It was a minor mention in their news. But, the international response to Sputnik changed their opinion. The rest of the world was shocked to hear the news. America’s efforts to launch a satellite were public and under world scrutiny, including our failures. But, the Soviet Union did all of their work in secret. Even Korolev’s name was withheld for decades. He was referred to simply as the “chief designer.”
Sputnik was polished to a mirrored surface. Ideally, sunlight catching off of the shiny surface would be visible to observers on the ground below. However, Sputnik-1 was very tiny, and the spherical shape did not reflect a lot of light to the ground below, making the satellite very difficult to observe. Millions of people, though, went out at night when Sputnik was due to pass overhead and saw a moving dot go by. They had seen Sputnik! Or so, they thought. As it turns out, they were seeing the spent upper stage of the R-7 booster rather than the much smaller satellite. Sputnik continued to orbit the Earth long after its batteries died, finally reentering the Earth’s atmosphere after 1440 orbits on January 4, 1958. And, anyone who could gain access to a shortwave radio tuned in to hear Sputnik beeping (listen to it here).
Sputnik caused quite a stir. The Soviet Union beat America to putting the first artificial satellite into orbit. America’s rocket scientists had no idea that the Soviet Union was capable of such a feat. We knew that they were working on the program, but most felt that America still had the lead. America’s intelligence community, though, knew that the Soviets were far farther along on the project than our rocket scientists knew, but that information was a carefully guarded secret. Our intelligence community did not want the Soviets to know how much we knew about their program. Tomorrow, I’ll blog some more about Sputnik.
You can read more about the Sputnik program in Paul Dickson’s book Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. Another good book to learn about Sputnik and the decisions leading to it is James Harford’s book Korolov: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon. Both books are excellent and give not only a chronology of the events from the Soviet side of the first days of the Space Race, but they also give some insights into the men who made the decisions that led to Sputnik and eventually Soyuz.
(A followup posting to this can be found here.)