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 stunned everyone by launching the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. It was an event that galvanized the world and spurred the fledgling U.S. space effort into high gear. No one who was alive at that time can forget the electricity of the moment when humans first lofted a satellite into orbit. The fact that it was the U.S.S.R. beating the U.S. to orbit was even more shocking, especially to Americans.

Sputnik by the Numbers

The name "Sputnik" 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 had heavy political significance and signaled the country's ambitions in space. 

Sputnik 1 Assembly
Sputnik 1 Assembly. Asif A. Siddiq / NASA

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. Almost immediately, other satellites were built and an era of satellite exploration began at the same time that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. began making plans to send people to space.

Setting the Stage for the Space Age

To understand why Sputnik 1 was such a surprise, it's important to look at what was going on at the time, to take a good look back to the late 1950s. At that time, the world was poised on the brink of space exploration. The development of rocket technology was actually aimed at space but was diverted to wartime use. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) were rivals both militarily and culturally. Scientists on both sides were developing bigger, more powerful rockets to take payloads to space. Both countries wanted to be the first to explore the high frontier. It was just a matter of time before it happened. What the world needed was a scientific and technical push to get there.

Space Science Enters the Main Stage

Scientifically, the year 1957 was established as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a time when scientists would use new methods to study Earth, its atmosphere, and magnetic field. It was timed to coincide with the 11-year sunspot cycle. Astronomers were also 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" caused by solar activity, such as auroral storms and other aspects of the upper ionosphere. They also wanted to study other phenomena such as airglows, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, make determinations of longitude and latitude and planned to conduct tests in meteorology, oceanography, and seismology. As part of this, the U.S. had a plan to launch the first artificial satellite, and its planners were hoping to be the first ones to send something into space.

Such 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. 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. 

Wernher von Braun Gallery - Dr. Wernher von Braun and Astronaut Cooper
Dr. Wernher von Braun was part of the U.S. space effort at the time of the Sputnik launch, working to build rockets to take U.S. satellites and astronauts such as L. Gordon Cooper (right) to space.  NASA

The Sputnik launch also led directly to the creation of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to carry on a civilian space effort (rather than militarizing the activity). 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 are scattered around the world. One hangs at the United Nations building in New York City, while another is in a place of honor at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The World Museum in Liverpool, England has one, as does the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson and the California Science Center in L.A.. The Russian Embassy in Madrid, Spain, also has a Sputnik model. They remain gleaming reminders of the earliest days of the Space Age at a time when science and technology were coming together to create a new era of exploration. 

Edited and revised by Carolyn Collins Petersen.