Sputnik 1: Earth's First Artificial Satellite

Sputnik 1
Sputnik 1 was launched by the USSR on October 4, 1957, starting the space race. This replica of the tiny satellite hangs at the Missile and Space Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Public domain

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. The name comes from a Russian word for "traveling companion of the world." It was a smallish metal ball that weighed just 83 kg (184 lbs.) and was lofted into space by an R7 rocket. The tiny satellite carried a thermometer and two radio transmitters and was part of the Soviet Union's work during the International Geophysical Year. While its goal was partly scientific, the launch and deployment into orbit signaled the country's ambitions in space. 

Sputnik circled Earth once every 96.2 minutes and transmitted atmospheric information by radio for 21 days. Just 57 days after its launch, Sputnik was destroyed while reentering the atmosphere but signaled a whole new era of exploration. The mission was a major shock to the world, especially in the United States, and it triggered the start of the Space Age. 

Setting the Stage for the Space Age

To understand why Sputnik 1 was such a surprise, look back to the late 1950s. The world was poised on the brink of space exploration. The United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) were rivals both militarily and culturally. Scientists on both sides were developing rockets to take payloads to space and both countries wanted to be the first to explore the high frontier. It was just a matter of time before someone sent a mission into orbit.

Space Science Enters the Main Stage

Scientifically, the year 1957 was established as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), and it was timed to coincide with the 11-year sunspot cycle. Astronomers were planning to observe the Sun and its influence on Earth throughout that time, particularly on communications and in the newly emerging discipline of solar physics.  

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences created a committee to oversee U.S. IGY projects. These included investigations of what we now call "space weather": auroras, airglows, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, the ionosphere, determinations of longitude and latitude, meteorology, oceanography, seismology, solar activity, and the upper atmosphere. As part of this, the U.S. had a plan for a program to launch the first artificial satellite.

Artificial satellites were not a new idea. In October 1954, scientists called for the first ones to be launched during IGY to map Earth's surface. The White House agreed that this might be a good idea, and announced plans to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite to take measurements of the upper atmosphere and the effects of the solar wind. Officials solicited proposals from various government research agencies to undertake the development of such a mission. In September 1955, the Naval Research Laboratory's Vanguard proposal was chosen. Teams began building and testing missiles, with varying degrees of success. However, before the United States could launch its first rockets to space, the Soviet Union beat everyone to the punch.

The U.S. Responds

The "beeping" signal from Sputnik not only reminded everyone of Russian superiority, but it also galvanized public opinion in the U.S. The political backlash over the Soviets "beating" Americans to space led to some interesting and long-reaching results.The U.S. Defense Department immediately began providing funding for another U.S. satellite project. At the same time, Wernher von Braun and his Army Redstone Arsenal team began work on the Explorer project, which was launched to orbit on January 31, 1958. Very quickly, the Moon was announced as a major target, which set in motion planning for a series of missions. 

The Sputnik launch also led directly to the creation of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In July 1958, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the "Space Act"). That act created NASA on October 1, 1958, uniting the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other government agencies to form a new agency aimed at putting the U.S. squarely in the space business. 

Models of Sputnik commemorating this daring mission hang at the United Nations building in New York City, the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the World Museum in Liverpool, England, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, the California Science Center in L.A., the Russian Embassy in Madrid, Spain, and several other museums in the U.S. They are gleaming reminders of the earliest days of the Space Age. 

Edited and revised by Carolyn Collins Petersen.