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Today, people take it for granted that they live in a world that isn’t threatened with imminent nuclear annihilation, where two superpowers are aiming nuclear weapons at each other and constantly trying to gain the upper hand in every possible arena. A little more than half a century ago, that was the kind of world people lived in, where the United States and Soviet Union were locked in a constant game of one-upmanship that revolved around the development of nuclear weapons, but also extended to include sports, politics, and the race to reach space itself. On October 4th, 1957, the Russians were the first to accomplish this goal with the launching of Sputnik One, an unmanned research and communications satellite whose appearance triggered the “Sputnik Crisis” in the United States and ignited the space race.
Beginning in March of 1954, Russia’s three top scientists: MstislavKeldysh, Sergei Korolev and Mikhail Tikhonravov, began discussing the idea of creating an artificial satellite that could be placed into orbit. Up until this time, the Russians had already been conducting orbital research using rockets. However, these efforts were limited by the fact that conventional rockets could only achieve orbit for a maximum of a few minutes before falling back to Earth. The next step seemed obvious: placing a research satellite into space that could maintain its orbit and therefore conduct scientific research for an extended period of time. Two months later, they proposed to the Soviet government that a satellite be launched before the start of the International Geophysical year (1957-1958) and specifically before the Americans could do it first. The project was approved. Keldyshwas given control of a commission to develop the “automatic laboratory” while Tikhonravovand his team of engineers would be responsible for designing it.
By 1957, their efforts culminated in the creation of PS-1 and 2, prosteishii sputnik (or “very simple satellite”). On October 4th, at 19:28:34 hours Greenwich Mean Time, Sputnik 1 was launched into space from the BaikonurCosmodrome. The satellite orbited the Earth for three months and emitting radio signals which were monitored by amateur radio operators throughout the world before burning up on reentry on January 4th1958. The signals continued for 22 days until the transmitter batteries ran out on October 26th1957. The satellite travelled a total of about 60 million km and completed 1,440 orbits around the Earth.
Apart from its value as a technological first, Sputnik also helped to identify the upper atmospheric layer’s density, provided data on radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere, and provided the first opportunity for meteoroid detection.
We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the History of Astronomy. Listen here, Episode 187: History of Astronomy, Part 5: The 20th Century.