Happy birthday Sputnik 1!

Exactly 60 years ago today, on 4 October 1957, Earth got its first ever artificial satellite. It was the USSR made Sputnik-1.

Sputnik 1 was launched during the International Geophysical Year from Site No.1/5, at the 5th Tyuratam range, in Kazakh SSR (now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome). The satellite travelled at about 29,000 kilometres per hour (18,000 mph; 8,100 m/s), taking 96.2 minutes to complete each orbit. It transmitted on 20.005 and 40.002 MHzwhich were monitored by amateur radio operators throughout the world. The signals continued for 21 days until the transmitter batteries ran out on 26 October 1957. Sputnik burned up on 4 January 1958 while reentering Earth’s atmosphere, after three months, 1440 completed orbits of the Earth, and a distance travelled of about 70 million km (43 million mi). Tracking and studying Sputnik 1 from Earth provided scientists with valuable information, even though the satellite itself wasn’t equipped with sensors. The density of the upper atmosphere could be deduced from its drag on the orbit, and the propagation of its radio signals gave information about the ionosphere.

In the following years the first orbit of Sputnik 1 would be regarded as a momentous achievement, a turning point for space exploration and the spark to much scientific advancement and the Space Race. Ironically, though, all this importance was apparently not immediately felt on October 4th, 1957.

Sputnik Pravda
The front page of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda of October 6th, 1957, two days after Sputnik’s first orbit of the Earth.

A testament to the initially low-key response of the Soviet Union is that the Communist Party newspaper Pravda only printed a few paragraphs about Sputnik 1 on 4 October. It was only  a couple of days later, following the world’s startled response, that the Soviets started celebrating their great accomplishment. The image above, for instance shows the front page of the Pravda not from October 4th or 5th, but one day later, on October 6th.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, initially U.S. President Eisenhower was not surprised by Sputnik 1. He had been forewarned of the Soviet capabilities by information derived from U-2 spy plane overflight photos as well as signals and telemetry intercepts. The Eisenhower administration’s first response was low-key and almost dismissive. Eisenhower was even pleased that the USSR, not the U.S., would be the first to test the waters of the still-uncertain legal status of orbital satellite overflights.


This all was to change fairly quickly, on both sides, but with a great impact in the US. Soon a period of public fear and anxiety in western nations about the perceived technological gap between the United States and Soviet Union caused by the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik 1 begun, which came to be known as “The Sputnik crisis”.  The crisis was a key event in the Cold War that triggered the creation of NASA and the Space Race between the two superpowers. The Sputnik Crisis also spurred substantial transformation in the United States’ science policy which provided much of the basis for modern academic scientific research. In the mid-1960s NASA went on to provide almost 10 percent of the federal funds for academic research.

Soviet stamp depicting Sputnik’s orbit around Earth. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=229349

Even though there is no “hard link” to correlate the events, many people believe that the launch of Sputnik-1 in 1957 created (or at least greatly sped up the process that led to the creation of) the internet!

Why is that, you ask? Well, the US realized that if the USSR had the capability of sending a satellite into orbit, it would soon be able to send a military, nuclear missile into space and target its re-entry on Earth so that it could hit anywhere in the world, including the whole of the United States. This meant that any system of communication centered around a single nodal point could be rendered inoperative with a single strike and there was nowhere “safe” to hide it from Soviet missiles. This meant that a new communication system was to be create (initially only for the military), capable od keeping on working even if one or more of its nodal points were to be hit and destroyed. To fulfil this military need in the beginning of the 1960s (about 5 years after Sputnik) the Arpanet was created, which in time would evolve to the internet that we all know and use today.

I took the feature picture of this post in the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow and if you are thinking about visiting it to celebrate Sputnik’s 60th birthday (which, by the way, would be an excellent idea), you can read more about the museum in this post I published a while ago.


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