On this day in 1957, the USSR rockets into the modern “Space Age” with its launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. The spacecraft, imaginatively 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, or Простейший Спутник-1, had a diameter of 22 inches, 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 of 584 miles and a perigee 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.
In the shank of the Cold War, however, many Americans feared more sinister uses of the Soviets’ new rocket and satellite technology, which was apparently aeronautical miles 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.”
An unforeseen consequence of Sputnik shock was the perception of a “missile gap,” and this became a dominant issue in the 1960 Presidential campaign, and may have helped launch WW2 hero John F. Kennedy in the White House.