Competition to Put the First Satellite in Space

In July 1955, Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolev received some sad news.

It appeared the U.S. would put the first satellite in space. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had announced that the United States would orbit a satellite during the International Geophysical Year, an 18-month period that would begin in mid-1957.

It was a big blow to the chief designer of the Russian space program. Korolev had been arguing without success that the Soviet Union should put the first satellite in space. But, now it seemed the Americans would win the race.

But, Eisenhower's announcement turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Soviet leadership soon embraced the idea. They decreed that the first satellite in space would weigh at least one metric ton (2,200 pounds) with  440 pounds (200 kg) of scientific equipment.

It was a tall order. Korolev and his team would not only have to build the satellite but modify the R-7 ballistic missile they were developing for orbital flight -- and do it all before the Americans.

In the United States, a committee was deciding which branch of the Armed Forces would launch the nation's first satellite. Wernher von Braun promoted the U.S. Army's proposal, which would use an upgraded version of the Redstone rocket. Von Braun believed he could orbit a satellite quickly with the rocket, which was in an advanced stage of development.

However, the committee selected the U.S. Navy's Vanguard rocket, which was not nearly as far along. There were several reasons for the decision, including the belief that von Braun's rocket was more important as a military deterrent against the Soviet Union. The decision would have significant consequences.

Korolev found that he had to greatly scale down the Sputnik spacecraft. The first satellite in space would be a 23-inch silver sphere weighing all of 184 pounds (83.5 kg) . Inside the sphere were a one-watt radio transmitter, a battery, a temperature regulation system and other equipment.

First Satellite in Space

Sputnik and Sergei Korolev

On Oct. 4, 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched from the Tyuratam spaceport in the Kazakh Republic into a highly elliptical orbit of 139 by 590 miles (223 by 1,450 km). Its "beep, beep, beep" was heard all around the world. The tiny spacecraft would orbit for three months before re-entering the atmosphere on Jan. 4, 1958.

Americans were shocked to have been beaten by the Soviets. Dark visions of bombs raining down from orbit circulated in the media. The fear deepened on Dec. 6, when America's Vanguard rocket exploded during lift-off. It was not until von Braun launched America's first satellite, Explorer 1, on Jan. 31, 1958, that America's wounded pride was soothed.

While his people panicked, Eisenhower remained calm. Sputnik was small and had no military value. The U.S. was making significant progress in its missile defense, which mattered a great deal more. And the question of whether satellites had the right to fly over another nation's territory had been legally uncertain; the flight of Sputnik 1 helped to clarify it.

Korolev received no public recognition for his historic achievement at the time. Fearing kidnapping and assassination plots, the Soviet leadership kept his identity secret. It was not until after his death in 1966 that Korolev was given public credit for putting the first satellite in space.

Links for Competition to Put the First Satellite in Space

Sputnik 1

Sergei Korolev


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