Remembering Sputnik 1: Earth's First Man-Made Satellite

Fagjun | Published 2017-10-11 16:21

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, a satellite the size of a beach ball. Let's commemorate the 60th anniversary of the launch of Earth's first man-made satellite by taking a look back at the very thing that triggered the Space Race between the US and Soviet Russia.


A replica of Sputnik 1



Sputnik 1 was a surprise success. It was even visible from Earth, and its radio pulses were detectable. Of course, the US wasn't about to let the Russians have all the fun. Sputnik's successful launch precipitated the Space Race, which became a part of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Politics aside, however, Sputnik 1 also triggered the pursuit of a lot of technological, military, and scientific advancements.


Not bad for something that looked like a metallic beach ball with spikes.



Sputniks 1, 2, and 3


The dog Laika, preparing for her fateful flight aboard Sputnik 2. [Photo by Getty Images]



The Soviets initially didn't want their first man-made satellite to be the size of a beach ball. They wanted to launch a 1,400-kilogram space craft, called Object D, that carried numerous scientific instruments. However, progress on this craft was going too slowly, and the Soviets feared that the US might be able to beat them to launching the first-ever satellite. Thus, the Soviet Union decided to launch a simple, 83-kilogram craft with no scientific instruments.


Sputnik 1 took 98 minutes to orbit the Earth in an elliptical path.


Just months after Sputnik 1's successful launch and orbit, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. What makes this particular craft special is that it's the first one to carry a living animal up to orbit Earth. Sputnik 2 made its orbit with a now-famous dog called Laika, who sadly died just a few hours after Sputnik 2's launch.


Object D, meanwhile, finally made its debut as Sputnik 3 and launched on May 15, 1958. It was able to utilize all its instruments to conduct geophysical research in the upper atmosphere as well as near space.


The launch of Sputnik 1 and its subsequent incarnations caused quite a stir in the Western world, prompting what was called the “Sputnik crisis”. During this point in history, there was fear and anxiety that the Soviet Union had surpassed the US in terms of technological capability.



The First Man-Made Satellite: Its Role in History


A replica of Sputnik 3 [Photo by Енин Арсений - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0]



The Sputnik crisis may seem bad, and it probably was for those who lived through it, but it did cause some good. It was what prompted the formation of NASA, as well as the Space Race that encouraged the two rival countries to keep seeking technological advancements. Imagine where the world would be now if Sputnik 1 failed to launch.


By modern standards, perhaps, Sputnik 1 isn't all that impressive. It was small, it didn't go far, and it didn't really discover or study anything. It burned up in our atmosphere on January 4, 1958, not even a year after its launch. However, it holds the distinction not only of being humanity's very first man-made satellite, but also of being the catalyst for countless discoveries and advancements.

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