October 4,1957: Sputnik launched

October 4: General Interest
1957: Sputnik launched

The Soviet Union
inaugurates the “Space Age” with its launch of Sputnik, the world’s first
artificial satellite. The spacecraft, named Sputnik after the Russian
word for “satellite,” was launched at 10:29 p.m. Moscow time from the Tyuratam
launch base in the Kazakh Republic. Sputnik had a diameter of 22 inches and
weighed 184 pounds and circled Earth once every hour and 36 minutes. Traveling
at 18,000 miles an hour, its elliptical orbit had an apogee (farthest point from
Earth) of 584 miles and a perigee (nearest point) of 143 miles. Visible with
binoculars before sunrise or after sunset, Sputnik transmitted radio signals
back to Earth strong enough to be picked up by amateur radio operators. Those in
the United States with access to such equipment tuned in and listened in awe as
the beeping Soviet spacecraft passed over America several times a day. In
January 1958, Sputnik’s orbit deteriorated, as expected, and the
spacecraft burned up in the atmosphere.

Officially, Sputnik was
launched to correspond with the International Geophysical Year, a solar period
that the International Council of Scientific Unions declared would be ideal for
the launching of artificial satellites to study Earth and the solar system.
However, many Americans feared more sinister uses of the Soviets’ new rocket and
satellite technology, which was apparently strides ahead of the U.S. space
effort. Sputnik was some 10 times the size of the first planned U.S.
satellite, which was not scheduled to be launched until the next year. The U.S.
government, military, and scientific community were caught off guard by the
Soviet technological achievement, and their united efforts to catch up with the
Soviets heralded the beginning of the “space race.”

The first U.S.
satellite, Explorer, was launched on January 31, 1958. By then, the Soviets had
already achieved another ideological victory when they launched a dog into orbit
aboard Sputnik 2. The Soviet space program went on to achieve a series of
other space firsts in the late 1950s and early 1960s: first man in space, first
woman, first three men, first space walk, first spacecraft to impact the moon,
first to orbit the moon, first to impact Venus, and first craft to soft-land on
the moon. However, the United States took a giant leap ahead in the space race
in the late ’60s with the Apollo lunar-landing program, which successfully
landed two Apollo 11 astronauts on the surface of the moon in July 1969.


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