A new era of exploration began on 4 October 1957 as Sputnik 1 began its transmissions from high above the Earth And the beeps from the satellites radio were also a dear signal of Soviet space superiority

But Sputnik 1, an 83-kg (184-lb) steel ball some 58cm (23in) across, and containing little more than a basic radio transmitter, was still a long way from Tikhonravov's ambitious Object D orbital laboratory. Just what had happened to derail Soviet plans for a more spectacular entry into the Space Age?

The birth of Sputnik

Ultimately, plans to develop Object D in time for a 1957 launch had fallen victim to the same problems encountered time and again in the early days of the space programme - bureaucracy and politics. Despite a promising start and direct approval from the Soviet head of state, the satellite had fallen behind schedule due to the unwillingness of other institutions to cooperate with the mysterious requirements of OKB-1. To take just one example, there were repeated delays to the delivery of high-quality silicon that the Department of Chemistry was supposed to be supplying for Object D's solar cells. By September 1956, it was clear that the project was in trouble, and Mstislav Keldysh of the Commission


The Sputnik launch (above) not only showed Soviet superiority in rocketry, it was also the first time the R-7 missile hod performed flawlessly - onother reason for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (right) to be happy with the results.


The Sputnik launch (above) not only showed Soviet superiority in rocketry, it was also the first time the R-7 missile hod performed flawlessly - onother reason for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (right) to be happy with the results.

on Spaceflight said as much at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences. Korolev knew there was now a risk that the United States might achieve a launch while the Soviet satellite was still under construction. Against Keldysh's wishes, he began development of a much smaller and more achievable satellite, which he named Prosteshii Sputnik - Project Sputnik (PS), or "Companion".

Early in 1957, Korolev revealed his contingency measures to the Soviet leadership. The plan required two small PS models and a new "shroud" to cap the R-7 and protect the satellite on its way to orbit. The revised project was approved and made OKB-1's top priority (contingent, of course, on the successful launch of the R-7) in late January.

Testing the R-7

While work on the new PS satellites got under way, pressure was also growing on the R-7 project. In May 1957, the first missile arrived at the Tyuratam launch complex (see p.59). But a launch attempt on 15 May ended in failure 100 seconds into the flight, as one of the strap-on boosters caught fire and exploded due to a fuel leak. Modifications were made to prevent a repeat performance, but other problems appeared in the second and third tests. Finally, on 21 August, an R-7 made it nearly all the way to its target zone on the remote Kamchatka Peninsula before its warhead disintegrated. Another launch on 7 September ended in the same way - there was clearly work to be done before the R-7 could be a dependable ICBM, but its lower stages were now seen as reliable enough to attempt a satellite launch.


Most Americans waking on the morning of 5 October 1957 were alarmed to learn that a Soviet satellite had flown over their heads at least four times as they slept. For President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it was a shocking sign of Soviet technological parity - and potential superiority.

... the new socialist society turns even the most daring of man's dreams into a reality."

Official TASS press statement, 4 October 1957 ^^^


As it separoted from the shroud and the core rocket stage, Sputnik released four long radio antennae, between 2.4 and 2.9m (94 and 114in) long. The "beeps" they broadcast carried data about pressure and temperature encoded in their duration.

outer casing

Countdown to launch

On 20 September, the State Commission met to approve the launch, initially setting the date for 6 October. But rumours soon spread of an American scientific paper, due to be presented on that day at an IGY conference in Washington, entitled "Satellite in Orbit". Although Soviet intelligence was confident that the US was only planning a sub-orbital launch (see over), Korolev did not want to miss his date with history by a whisker, and the launch was duly moved forward two days.

At 10:28pm Moscow Time on 4 October 1957, a modified R-7 carrying the PS-1 satellite fired its engines to rise clear of the launch pad at Tyuratam. The ascent went flawlessly, as did the ^^^ separation of Sputnik 1, as the little satellite became known, from the central ^^IP rocket stage. However, by the time Sputnik had unfolded its antennae and begun to transmit, it had passed beyond the range of Soviet receivers. There was \ IflR an anxious 90-minute wait for its next passage across the sky, when a steady uJHfl stream of beeps confirmed Sputnik was jH in a stable orbit ranging from 215 to 939km (133 to 583 miles) above the Earth. The Space Age had begun.

inner casing antenna mount temperature and pressure sensors instrument casing containing two batteries and two radio transmitters inner casing rear of ventilation fan outer casing


Sputnik's flight was monitored by scientists across the world, such as those at the Stanford Research Institute in the USA (above). Scientific interest was mingled with concern about what a Soviet presence in space could mean.


Although basic, every aspect of the first satellite had a scientific purpose. The ball-like shape would aid calculations of atmospheric drag (which eventually pulled the satellite to its doom three months later), while the pressurized internal sphere was a prototype for a passenger cabin.

1 May 1957

A Vanguard first and third stage launch a dummy satellite on a suborbital path.

4 October 1957

News of the successful launch of Sputnik 1 spreads around the world.

23 October 1957

The Vanguard TV-2 rocket, with functioning first and second stages and an inert third stage, launches successfully. In view of the Sputnik 1 launch, the decision is made to attempt a satellite launch as part of the TV-3 test flight.

8 November 1957

Von Braun's Army-based Project Orbiter is restarted, under orders to launch a satellite within 90 days.

6 December 1957

The US Navy Vanguard rocket TV-3 fails on launch from Cape Canaveral.

The US responds

Caught completely off-guard by the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the United States rushed to respond with a satellite launch of their own. But as poor decisions came back to haunt them, the launch ended not in triumph, but in humiliation.

News that the Soviet Union had launched a satellite first reached the US on the evening of 4 October 1957. Scientists at the IGY meeting in Washington queued to congratulate the gleeful Soviet delegation. At Huntsville, Wernher von Braun was entertaining a group of VIPs including the new Secretary of Defense and the Army's Chief of Staff when the news broke. After proclaiming, "Today, man has taken his first step towards Mars," von Braun turned to lobbying his visitors on the importance of restarting his Redstone-based launch vehicle programme (see p.48).

In the White House there was consternation, as much over the intelligence failure as over Sputnik 1 itself. For years, the CIA had dismissed Soviet space promises as propaganda and the idea that a Russian satellite could outperform US efforts as fantasy. The level of surprise was well expressed by James M. Gavin, Army Chief of Research and Development, who likened Sputnik to a "technological Pearl Harbor" - the US had lost a seemingly one-horse race.

While the inquests would rumble on, the immediate question was how to respond. Eisenhower faced a difficult decision - he felt that the missile gap, as it was known, was largely a public misconception, fed by a need for secrecy about


With the establishment of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) at Redstone in 1956, von Braun's team came under the command of Major Generol John B. Medaris (on the left in this picture with von Broun).

America's missile programmes and its intelligence-gathering capabilities. The Redstone rockets, now under the control of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), were increasingly reliable, while the longer-range Atlas and Titan ICBM programmes of the Air Force and Navy were progressing well. Meanwhile, U-2 spy planes provided a good idea of the state of the R-7, or Sapwood, as it was known in the West.

Nevertheless, the American public was nervous, and a swift response was called for. On 9 October, Eisenhower congratulated the Soviet Union for its launch of what he called a "small ball" into space. He insisted that US plans would not change and announced a test of the Vanguard rocket in December. The implication that the vehicle would have been ready anyway was misleading - in reality, the Vanguard team, run by John P. Hagen of the Naval Research Laboratory, knew that rushing to launch on Eisenhower's timetable was a dangerous gamble.

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