Before Friday 04 October 1957, space travel was the province of science fiction and fantasy.
Fantasy morphed into fact 65 years ago when the first man-made object, Sputnik 1, successfully reached orbit and began its incessant beeps. The space age was born.
Audio: Telemetry from Sputnik via NASA
Publicly, the U.S. suddenly realized it was far behind. We now know that the CIA and the Eisenhower Administration knew a launch was planned before year’s end.
Former former NASA chief historian Roger D. Launius reflects on that day:
Two generations after the event, words do not easily convey the American reaction to the Soviet satellite. The only appropriate characterization that begins to capture the mood on 5 October involves the use of the word hysteria…
Almost immediately, two phrases entered the American lexicon to define time, “pre-Sputnik” and “post-Sputnik.” The other phrase that soon replaced earlier definitions of time was “Space Age.” With the launch of Sputnik 1, the Space Age had been born and the world would be different ever after.
While President Eisenhower and other leaders of his administration also congratulated the Soviets and tried to downplay the importance of the accomplishment, they misjudged the public reaction to the event. The launch of Sputnik 1 had a “Pearl Harbor” effect on American public opinion. It was a shock, introducing the average citizen to the space age in a crisis setting. The event created an illusion of a technological gap … In the Cold War environment of the late 1950s, this disparity of capability portended menacing implications (emphasis added).
Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) was the Senate Majority Leader. His memory of that evening:
Now, somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien. I also remember the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for another nation to achieve technological superiority over this great country of ours.
And so political hay was sown.
For example, G. Mennen Williams, the Democratic governor of Michigan, wrote a meme-worthy poem criticizing President Eisenhower:
Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it’s a Commie sky
and Uncle Sam’s asleep.
You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.
The Russian word “Sputnik” means “companion” (“satellite” in the astronomical sense). It was the first in a planned series of four satellites. Three (Sputnik 1, 2, and 3) reached Earth orbit.
The world’s first artificial satellite took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth and was about the size of a (very heavy) beach ball. A tribute to the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), it launched from a rocket testing facility in the desert of Kazakhstan, then part of the former Soviet Union.
On 03 November 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2, which carried a dog, Laika (“Barker”), who did not return to Earth alive.
Ironically, a flight that promised Laika’s certain death also offered proof that space was livable.
The U.S. would successfully launch Vanguard 1 (after two spectacular failures) five months later (17 March 1958). It weighed 1.47 kg to Sputnik 1 at 83.6 kg.
Eventually, space competition would become space cooperation. Today space exploration is a private-public partnership.
See Wilson Center documents detailing the 20th-century space race between the United States and the Soviet Union
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National Air and Space Museum
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