The Soviet Union kicked off the Space Age 50 years ago this week by firing a basketball-size satellite called Sputnik into orbit, where its feeble "beep beep " would serve as a wake-up call to American dreams of preeminence and nightmares of nuclear attack.
News reports honoring this week's anniversary have made much of Soviet leaders' seemingly paradoxical lack of enthusiasm for the historic launch, in contrast to its galvanizing effect on the American public, which saw in Sputnik evidence that a space race had begun while Uncle Sam still lingered at the starting gate.
In reality, the U.S. reaction paralleled that of the Soviets in significant ways, according to Erik Conway, a NASA historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. In both countries, aerospace engineers had to drag political leaders' attention to the stars. U.S. rocket builders, however, were aided by the popular belief that Russia's achievement demonstrated its technological superiority—and, more importantly, its nuclear reach.
That misconception, Conway says, would have dramatic consequences for the U.S. space program, resulting in the birth of NASA and the rise of space science—not to mention the first manned missions to the moon.
Sputnik was the brainchild of a group of Russian engineers, led by Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, who were tasked in 1954 with developing the nation's first intercontinental ballistic missile. The following year, Korolev was granted permission to pursue his real dream—an artificial satellite capable of exploring the origin of cosmic rays and other scientific questions—after the U.S. announced its intention to put a satellite into orbit as early as 1957 to mark the so-called International Geophysical Year.
When Korolev's team failed to complete a proposed 1,000-kilogram- (2,200-pound-) plus satellite on time, it switched gears to a bare-bones design for a much smaller craft dubbed "simple satellite," or Sputnik for short. On October 4, 1957, an R-7 ballistic missile blasted off from the plains of Kazakhstan carrying the 58-centimeter (23-inch), 83-kilogram (183-pound) aluminum orb, essentially a radio transmitter with four swept-back antennas.
The R-7 was the largest missile of its time and "much more powerful than anything the Americans had," Georgi Grechko, a Russian rocket engineer and former cosmonaut, told the Associated Press this week.
Americans—even the most technologically savvy—were stunned. "We didn't expect it that soon," says Henry Richter, a former JPL rocket engineer who worked on Explorer 1, the first successful U.S. satellite. "Nobody had ever launched a satellite before. We didn't know we could do it. Here it was suddenly up in the sky sending radio signals."
The following month, the Soviets launched the country's most famous dog, Laika, into orbit on Sputnik 2. At around 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds), the second Sputnik dwarfed the U.S. Vanguard satellite, which at 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds) was slated to be the first attempt, but had yet to launch. Sputnik 2 was also roughly the size of an American warhead, Conway says, but the U.S. could build a smaller warhead because it had more sophisticated electronics, adding that the Russians projected they would need a warhead more than twice that size.
"To the American public, the fact that the Soviets had much larger rockets made them look like they were ahead, but in fact we were," he says. President Eisenhower, seemingly confident that the U.S. was on track, downplayed Sputnik's significance.
The Russian leadership was similarly unimpressed when they received word of the first Sputnik launch. Russian premiere Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet officials considered the satellite a "scientific amusement" that gave the communist country bragging rights but did not advance the main goal of an ICBM, Sergei Khrushchev, the premiere's son, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week.