On October 4th, 1957, the USSR launched a satellite into Earth orbit as part of International Geophysical Year. Sputnik 1 was not the first man-made object to reach outer space; that feat was accomplished by Wernher von Braun’s V2 rocket in World War II (in 1944 a vertically launched one passed the internationally accepted Kármán Line of 100km, and one launched in 1943 had reached Richard Branson’s redefinition of space as 85km). But Sputnik was the first to attain Earth orbit.
It was a polished sphere 23 inches in diameter, with 4 trailing antennae broadcasting radio pulses. The famous “beep, beep, beep...” could be heard by radio amateurs, and the satellite’s 65-degree inclination meant it could be heard almost in almost every inhabited part of the world. Travelling at 18,000 mph, it took 96.2 minutes to complete each orbit.
The rocket that carried it was derived from an R-7 Semyorka ICBM designed by top space scientist Sergei Korolov, whose very existence was not admitted by the USSR until after his death. Sputnik 1 was surprisingly heavy at 184 lb, but surprisingly primitive, in that 112 lb was its power supply of three silver-zinc batteries. The West gleaned more scientific information from Sputnik 1 than the Russians did, because their tracking technology was more accurate, so they could study the orbital decay in more detail. The satellite burned up on re-entry 3 months later.
American officials had known about the impending launch, but were totally surprised by the public reaction to it. To the American public is seemed like a defeat. They had been beaten into space by what they had thought of as a relatively backward country. The Soviets had not initially thought of milking the launch for propaganda, but when they saw the America reaction they began crowing about their more advanced technology, demonstrating, they said, the superiority of socialism.
Ironically, von Braun had been itching to launch a satellite with his Redstone rocket topped by a revolving cylinder of Sergeant missiles to fire it to orbital velocity. President Eisenhower would not allow it, however, because he wanted space to be a civilian domain, and thought a military rocket ‘inappropriate.’ The USSR had no such qualms. When America’s civilian rocket Vanguard crashed in flames on the pad in December 1957, Eisenhower finally gave the go-ahead to von Braun’s team. They had made preparations in secret, hiding their satellite in a car boot to escape detection. They were thus able to launch Explorer 1 into orbit by the end of January, 8 weeks later. It discovered the van Allen radiation belt almost immediately.
President Kennedy was not going to have America beaten, and issued his famous challenge. If the USSR wanted a race, they could have one. In less than 12 years after Sputnik first went into orbit, Americans were walking on the moon, a feat that it is reckoned contributed to a steep decline in Soviet morale, one that ultimately hastened the USSR’s demise.
There’s an epilogue, in that exactly 47 years after Sputnik achieved orbit on October 4th, 1957, SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize on October 4th 2004 by becoming the first private, non-government vehicle to go into space twice within 2 weeks with passenger-carrying capability. Sputnik 1 started the space race, but the modern version seems to be not USA versus USSR, but private versus government.