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Sputnik: The Space Race's Opening Shot

With a single shot, the Soviet Union vaulted ahead in the Space Race. The country sent Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, into space on Oct. 4, 1957. The small satellite brought the Soviet Union into the technological spotlight and demonstrated that the country was capable of modern feats.

sputnik
Sputnik was the world's first artificial satellite, launched Oct. 4, 1957.
Credit: NASA

The program sent a shockwave through the American public. A new definition of time was created; this was the "Space Age." The launch also sparked soul-searching among Americans, who had felt a sense of technological superiority amid a post-war economic boom. Was the United States falling behind? Could Sputnik be a play on the part of the Soviets to put arms in space? Is space a worthy place to compete for world prestige?

These were all questions Americans asked in the months following the beach ball-sized satellite's trip into Earth orbit. Meanwhile, the Soviets quietly launched bigger and more powerful satellites, demonstrating they were in space to stay.

Beginning of the Space Race

Sputnik ("traveling companion" in Russian) was a silver sphere with four long antennas. It was about 22 inches (56 centimeters) in diameter and weighed 183 pounds (83 kilograms). Circling the Earth every 98 minutes, it used a radio beacon that was able to pinpoint spots on the Earth's surface.

Working with a group of German rocket engineers who had built the V-2 rocket program that threw missiles at London, the Soviets spent about a decade after the Second World War plotting how to lob a satellite into space.

According to Russian Space Web, Sputnik was actually a scaled-back versionof the satellite the Soviets had hoped to launch.

While the Soviets had plans to put a 1,000- to 1,400-kilogram (2,205 to 3,086 pounds) satellite into orbit, they wanted to do it in time for International Geophysical Year of 1957-8, when the United States had a publicly stated goal of launching a satellite itself. Issues with one of the planned scientific instruments threatened that timeline, so the Soviets compromised with a simpler satellite to meet that date.

Sputnik may have been a compromise, but in the eyes of the world it was a large feat. The beeping noise it played from space echoed in worldwide radio broadcasts, as well as on television sets for the few who had the technology at the time. [Infographic: Sputnik: How the World's 1st Artificial Satellite Worked]

New visibility

The R-7 rocket stage that carried Sputnik into orbit was easily visible from the ground, shining with about the same brightness as the stars Spica or Antares. Sputnik itself was dimmer, but could also be seen if you knew where to look; it could best be spotted with a pair of binoculars. It stayed in orbit over 90 days.

While people around the world looked up to see Sputnik, American politicians were scrambling to deal with the fallout. Many wondered why the Soviets had made it up there first. Newspapers were saying the Americans were falling behind in the Space Race. There was a general feeling of hysteria, as NASA historian Roger Launius noted.

laika
Laika, a mixed-breed dog, was the first living being in orbit. She was launched on the Soviet Union's Sputnik 2 mission in November 1957.
Credit: NASA

This hysteria increased a month later when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2 on Nov. 3, 1957, with a dog, Laika, aboard. Sputnik 2 weighed 1,120 pounds (508 kg), and orbited the Earth for almost 200 days. This showed Sputnik was no fluke.

But the Americans were ready to show off their flight skills through a rocket program called Vanguard, under development by the Navy. The first rocket was set to blast off on Dec. 6, 1957. Horrified American officials watched as the rocket blew up on the pad, live in front of a nationwide television audience.

Even after the Americans got the Explorer 1 satellite into orbit on Jan. 31, 1958, using rocket technology developed principally by Germans who worked on the V-2, the Soviets were clearly in the lead.

Explorer 1 weighed about 30 pounds (13 kg) – just 2 percent of the weight of the massive Sputnik 2.As the Americans geared up to compete, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized the creation of NASA, which began searching for American astronauts. Sputnik proved to be the spark that got the American space effort going.

The third Sputnik

The Space Race moved quickly in those days. Just four months after the Americans sent Explorer 1 into space, the Soviets launched their biggest and most scientifically important satellite yet.

Sputnik 3 left Earth on May 15, 1958. Weighing in at almost 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg), the satellite also served as a scientific laboratory. Its 12 instruments measured the composition of Earth's upper atmosphere, the areas in orbit where charged particles from the sun congregated, and bits of meteors swirling nearby. Its greatest discovery was finding the outer radiation belts of Earth.

Sputnik 3 stayed aloft for almost two years, entering Earth's atmosphere on April 6, 1960. It marked the end of the Sputnik program, but the beginning of something bigger. It ultimately led to President John F. Kennedy's speech challenging Americans to put a man on the moon within the decade.

The Sputnik satellites showed that humanity was capable of reaching space, and able to do science in it. The next big challenge would be bringing humans themselves beyond the reaches of the atmosphere.

— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor

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Correction: This article was updated Nov. 27, 2012, to correct a reference to Sputnik's size.

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