The Little Satellite that Triggered the Space Age

On this day in 1957, the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the first, largest, and most active space port to this day). Thus, began a series of pioneering Soviet firsts—from nonhuman lunar landings to explorations of Venus—that would in turn trigger the Space Race with America culminating in the Moon landings.

60 Years Since Sputnik | Space | Air & Space Magazine

Ironically, despite the centralized and authoritarian nature of the Soviet political system, the U.S.S.R. never developed a single coordinating space agency like NASA. Instead it relied on several competing “design bureaus” led by brilliant and ambitious chief engineers vying to produce the best ideas. In other worlds, these Cold War rivals embraced space exploration with the other side’s philosophy: the Americans were more government centered, while the Russians went with something closer to a free market. (Of course, this oversimplifies things since the U.S. relied and still relies on independent contractors.)

Sergei Korolev - Wikipedia

Hence Sputnik was the product of six different entities, from the Soviet Academy of Science to the Ministry of Defense and even the Ministry of Shipbuilding. The satellite had been proposed and designed by Sergei Korolev, a visionary rocket scientist who also designed its launcher, the R-7, which was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. He is considered the father of modern aeronautics, playing a leading role in launching the first animal and human into space, with plans to land on the Moon before his unexpected death in 1966—three years before the U.S. would achieve that feat (who knows if the Russians would have made it had Korolev lived).

As many of us know, Sputnik’s launch led to the so called “Sputnik crisis”, which triggered panic and even hysteria among Americans, who feared the “free world” was outdone by the communists and that American prestige, leadership, scientific achievement, and even national security were all at stake. (After all, the first ICBM had just been used to launch the satellite and could very well do the same with nukes.)

Surprisingly, neither the Soviet nor American governments put much importance in Sputnik, at least not initially. The Russian response was pretty lowkey, as Sputnik was not intended for propaganda. The official state newspaper devoted only a few paragraphs to it, and the government had kept private its advances in rocketry and space science, which were well ahead of the rest of the world.

The U.S. government response was also surprisingly muted, far more so than the American public. The Eisenhower Administration already knew what was coming due to spy planes and other intelligence. Not only did they try to play it down, but Eisenhower himself was actually pleased that the U.S.S.R., and not the U.S., would be the first to test the waters of this new and uncertain frontier of space law.

But the subsequent shock and concern caught both the Soviet and American governments off guard. The U.S.S.R. soon went all-in with propaganda about Soviet technological expertise, especially as the Western world had long propagandized its superiority over the backward Russians. The U.S. pour money and resources into science and technology, creating not only NASA but DARPA, which is best known for planting the seeds of what would become the Internet. There was a new government-led emphasis on science and technology in American schools, with Congress enacting the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which provided low-interest loans for college tuition to students majoring in math and science.

After the launch of Sputnik, one poll found that one in four Americans thought that Russian sciences and engineering were superior to American; but the following year, this stunningly dropped to one out of ten, as the U.S. began launching its own satellites into space. The U.S.-run GPS system was largely the result of American physicists realizing Sputnik’s potential for allowing objects to be pinpointed from space.

The response to Sputnik was not entirely political, fearful, or worrisome. It was also a source of inspiration for generations of engineers, scientists, and astronauts across the world, even in the rival U.S. Many saw it optimistically as the start of a great new space age. The aeronautic designer Harrison Storms—responsible for the X-15 rocket plane and a head designer for major elements of the Apollo and Saturn V programs—claimed that the launch of Sputnik moved him to think of space as being the next step for America. Astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Deke Slayton, one of the “Mercury Seven” who led early U.S. spaceflights, later wrote of how the sight of Sputnik 1 passing overhead inspired them to pursue their record-breaking new careers.

Who could look back and imagine that this simple, humble little satellite would lead us to where we are today? For all the geopolitical rivalry involved, Sputnik helped usher in tremendous hope, progress, and technological achievement.