October 4, 1957

By Phil Plait | October 4, 2007 1:30 am

It was a Cold War propaganda machine, launched for reasons of pride, territoriality, greed, and a passel of other human failings, but it also separated all of history into Pre Space Age and Post Space Age.

No one thought the Soviet Union could do it, but on October 4, 1957 at 19:28:34 UT, they launched Sputnik, the very first artificial satellite into Earth orbit. The shock of this — Red Star in Orbit! — motivated the Space Race, and in just 12 years put men on the Moon.

Sometimes, out of bad comes good.

Your life depends on satellites in more ways then you might know. Weather forecasting? Check. Communications? Check. GPS? Internet? Intelligence Ops (which prevent wars, mind you)? Yup.

Don’t forget astronomy! Oh no, don’t you dare forget that: Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, SOHO, Swift, Uhuru, Einstein, COBE, WMAP… these all revolutionized our understanding of the Universe, in more ways than can be easily recounted, and they’re all satellites.

I am still amazed that most folks don’t know that they can easily see satellites on any clear night. Got to Heavens Above. Enter your coordinates. Then find out when the ISS passes overhead, or a rocket booster, or Hubble. Please, go look for Iridium satellites! They’ll rock your world.

In the mean time, read up on the little basketball beachball-sized doohickey that changed the world, and humanity, forever.

Update: What was I thinking??? I forgot to add: On this date, just three years ago, SpaceShipOne rocketed to an altitude of 100 km above the ground for the second time in a week, winning the X-Prize. It was the first private spaceship to do so. Tip o’ the nosecone to Dispatches from the Final Frontier for reminding me.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Science

Comments (60)

  1. Marc Connor

    In the great one’s own words:

    “Beep”

    “Beep”

    “Beep” indeed, you crazy ball of Russian not-a-warhead.

    I’m all for bashing the bible, but there’s a “swords into ploughshares” bit I’ve always found quite moving. The ICBM Sputnik rode into orbit was built to lob a warhead far enough to kill millions. An agent of annihilation has never before or since been so magnificently perverted.

    And the science! I mean, c’mon! Do _that_ with your homeopathy! Pray a hole through your bibe, line up all your crystals. Tell me exactly when and where to point my radio antenna so I can hear my astrally projected guide say “Beep” so clearly and regularly. Didn’t think so.

    BEEP!

  2. Bigfoot

    The greatest thing about Sputnik is the interest it spawned in science and engineering in this country in general. If only something would shock us back to our senses today! It’s so sad that so few in our culture understand the concept of what science really is, yet they all know the name of Britney’s ex!

    HeavensAbove.com is an awesome site — there is no better way to impress your neighbors than to “conjure up” an astonishingly bright
    -8 magnitude Iridium flare overhead with accuracy to the second (thanks to a carefully set $5 quartz crystal watch)!

    Sure, I explained to them about HeavensAbove.com, but there’s no longer a kid or adult living within a 1000′ radius of our house who doesn’t ask me what I am looking for when they see me staring up. It’s a great way to become an ambassador to the skies!

  3. Just finished reading Deborah Cadbury’s “Space Race” which was written to accompany a BBC television series shown last year. It’s an incredible account of the story behind von Braun and Korolev and the problems – both technical and political – that they had to overcome in order to reach for the moon. I would recommend it to anyone.

  4. TAMU Student

    A bit of interest, Лайка (Lajka/Laika), roughly means “husky” as in the kind of dog.

    How nice to launch ‘husky’ into space, Russia.

  5. TAMU Student

    As a note, I know Lajka was on Спутник Два, not the first one. ;)

  6. “It was a Cold War propaganda machine, launched for reasons of pride, territoriality, greed, and a passel of other human failings, […] motivated the Space Race, and in just 12 years put men on the Moon.

    Sometimes, out of bad comes good.”

    To me, this reads “Soviet achievement selfish, American achievement resplendent”. We put men on the moon for the same selfish reasons that the Soviets put up Sputnik — it’s the outcomes of BOTH of these selfish acts that are good. IMHO.

  7. Yogi-one

    Great post. I’m on board with it all except the part that says Intelligence Ops prevents wars. There’s at least one war we wouldn’t be in now if that were true…but that’s a subject for the political bloggers…

  8. Frank Oswalt

    “launched for reasons of pride, territoriality, greed” — do we ever act for reasons other than this?

  9. Cyberax

    There’s also a great four-volume book about Russian space program: “Rockets and people” (“Ракеты и люди”) by Chertok.

    Unfortunately, I can’t find its English translation. But it’s a great book for everyone who can read Russian.

  10. Let me get my two cents in before the whole “selfish” thing turns into Yet-Another-Pointless-Full-Blown-Argument-About-Ayn-Rand(TM). (Don’t anyone deny it, it was going to come up.)

    Anyway, Sputnik is always going to be the first, just like Neil Armstrong. It astounds me that there are so many untouched firsts yet to be achieved in space that no one has really been trying to reach. I don’t know how we came to be so risk-averse. Now if we wanted to go to the moon, we’d have sent fifteen unmanned spacecraft first before we decided it was safe. Then, we’d send a robot. Never mind the fact that Neil Armstrong had to contend with a computer problem on the lunar lander. His friends died in a horrible accident two years ago because of a design flaw. After Columbia, we didn’t dream of making another lift-off for at least two years. Yet, in the two years between Apollo 1 and Apollo 11, there were NINE other manned missions.

    On Columbia, we didn’t let the crew perform an EVA to repair the damage because it was too “risky” and the materials to be used were of uncertain resiliency. Herein lies yet another problem. Lack of faith in the astronauts, the people with “the right stuff”.

    I find it a little sad to know we would be on Mars now if Bin Laden had somehow begun successfully sending men to orbit it.

  11. Actually, from the last thing I heard and read about Sputnik I and Korolyov, it appears to me that the launch of this little ball of aluminium alloy was not really a publicity coup and a sign of greed but the culmination of of one signle man’s dreams who was able to succeed altough he had to overcome many obstacles. One of which meant surviving one of the infamous Gulag prisons.

    It appears that Korolyov had a hard time convincing Stalin that they needed to launch a space probe. Stalins answer to that was quite typical for politicians of all times: “What do we need that for?”
    Stalin was only interested in developing rockets capable of deploying nuclear warheads on the territory of the USA.

    Then Stalin died and Khrushchev came to power who was much more in favor of Korolyov.

    Still a little bit of luck was necessary: During tests with rockets carring dummy warheads in early 1957 it was discovered that the millitary payload did not survive reentry.

    Now they had two “spare” rockets and no warhead to test. At this time Korolyov was able to persuade Khrushchev to launch a space sattelite. In a rush the engineers put together a rudimentary probe and launched. Nothin fancy, just a radio transmitter in a polished ball of aluminium alloy.

    The rest ist history.

    However, the Soviets were very surprised about the response in the western world to the launch of Sputnik I and only then they realised that space probes could be used as propaganda tools.

  12. Lucres

    One small nitpick – Sputnick 1 was a bit larger than “basketball sized”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Sputnikteck.jpg

  13. I brought up at work a few months ago about China supposedly being able to shoot down a satellite. Mind you most people I work with are younger and “hipper” than me. They all have iPods, multiple cell phones etc.

    I saw the vacant looks on their faces and realized they didn’t realize the implications. One of them finally asked, “So?”

    ‘Well, kids, it’s like this. Shooting down satellites means losing GPS which means our military comes to a screaching halt and everyone currently in the woods will probably stay lost there until somebody finds their bodies. Those cell phones you use? Useless. No more TV either. Sucks, huh?’

  14. Ibrahim,

    “Yet, in the two years between Apollo 1 and Apollo 11, there were NINE other manned missions.”

    Remember, Apollo’s 2 through 6 were unmanned. Apollo 7 took off on 11 October 1968. The Apollo 1 disaster was on 27 January 1967. I make that a gap of over 20 months between manned American missions.

  15. Terry Smiljanich

    As a ten year old boy already interested in astronomy, I was floored with the Sputnik news. How could the Russkies beat us to it? Weren’t we the greatest nation where everything worked and the Russians a bunch of old fashioned henchmen? What a great wake up call for a complacent nation!

  16. Grand Lunar

    Soon as I saw the date Phil, I knew immediately “The birth of the Space Age!”

    Ah, little Sputnik. Well, not so little. But still, for such a small thing, it held great importance.

    “On Columbia, we didn’t let the crew perform an EVA to repair the damage because it was too “risky”….”

    NOT Columbia. Another shuttle. I feel ashamed in that I can’t recall which.

    “Remember, Apollo’s 2 through 6 were unmanned.”

    Actually, Apollo 2 was dismantled to discover what went wrong with Apollo 1. Apollo 3 was scrapped.
    The actual unmanned missions began with Apollo 4, the first flight of the Saturn 5.

  17. Cameron

    Wikipedia amazes me again. They already have a section in Sputnik about Google’s logo for today.

    Both my dad and one of my teachers that I know of (I’m in high school) specifically remembers watching the magic moving star fly over, as well as the common school admonishment of, “You need to do better in school, or we’ll never catch up to those Russian kids!”

    Oh, and Heavens-Above shows a magnitude -2.0 ISS flyover at 8:30 this evening. And tomorrow night is a magnitude -6 Iridium flare. Sweet!

  18. My point still stands. Disaster to quantum leap in two years is still pretty admirable. However, Grand Lunar, I’m pretty sure it was Columbia.

  19. cletus

    Like Lucres, I’m surprised that you’re using the same reference to “basketball-sized” that the mass media has been bandying about for days. By implying that it’s something that could be held in one hand, you’re perpetuating an inaccurate image of the 183-pound, 58cm object.

  20. bassmanpete

    “launched for reasons of pride, territoriality, greed” — do we ever act for reasons other than this?

    Individuals & small groups, yes; governments, no.

    I recall about a year after Sputnik 1 myself & a few friends were out after dark in the winter (we’d have been about 14 at the time) and saw this dot of light gliding swiftly across the sky. We didn’t know what it was but thought “Flying saucer!” So we called Jodrell Bank from a nearby public phone box. They said “No, it won’t be a flying saucer. It’ll be one of those artificial satellites, probably American.” We were just as excited at having seen one of these new fangled things as we would have been if it had been a flying saucer.

    Now I’m in Melbourne, Australia and I can go out on just about any night & see 3 or 4 pass overhead within 30 minutes but I’ll never forget that first one.

  21. DrFlimmer

    50 years. Much happened with spaceflight in that period of time.

    And no one of the western world wanted to believe that the Russians were going to launch Sputnik. Only a german guy, Heinz Kaminski, in Bochum turned on his “radio” and started listening. And then it went around the world (in every way it could do it ;)).

    Well, I think, we have a reason to celebrate today!
    Happy Birthday, Sputnik!

  22. anon

    “It was a Cold War propaganda machine, launched for reasons of pride, territoriality, greed, and a passel of other human failings, but it also separated all of history into Pre Space Age and Post Space Age.”

    did you even read Korolyov’s story?
    it was us americans that thought the above, the russian media didn’t make a big deal about it until everyone else did.

  23. Tom Epps

    “Watch the Skies! Keep Watching the Skies!”

  24. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, Sputnik, I remember thee well,,,

    Oct 4, 1957, I was 14, living with my grandmother in Topaz, Nevada. Granny came rushing in to announce the “end of the world” because those Russian commies had put up a Sat.,,,I remember quite clearly trying to correct her fearful apprehension by saying,
    ” No grandma. Now the race begins,,,”

    I’d already been reading SciFi for 4 years and was quite familiar with the geo-political(as understood by those techno-types) landscape and knew what would come next.
    I really anticipated we’d be on the moon before I was too old to enjoy it. Of course, I thought we would go all the way to “The Man Who Sold The Moon” scenario,,,too bad Americans have no balls,,,

    Gary 7

  25. I should have actually looked up its size. Nuts.

    As far as the “greed” line goes, I can see how it can be interpreted as “Soviets bad, US good”, but that’s not at all how I intended it. We were both bad. :-)

    And IntelOps do prevent wars. Just not all of them. Intel can always be twisted by evil men who have predetermined goals.

  26. bumhaskins

    Because of Sputnik, Jake Gyellenhall has a movie carrer. hahaha Thank you Soviets.

  27. There are a couple “sputnik’s” still around, but obviously not flown. When the satellite was being constructed it had a couple of “identical twins.” IIRC the one which was launched was actually serial number 2 in the series. They wanted to be sure they had some backups in case the rocket exploded or something, which happened from time to time around then.

    Man, it would be amazing to own one of the two or three remaining sputnik satellites which sat along side the one that went into space and ended up being arbitrarily chosen not to be the one for the first attempt.

    But I think that they’re kinda expensive…

  28. Kirk

    Thought about sending this as an e-mail, but then I read the disclaimer there, and since it’s tied in to this topic, it makes sense to share. I work at an early-primary-state television station, and so we get tons of press releases from the presidential candidates. They often take advantage of some anniversary or another to tie it to some plank on their platform.

    Well, Sputnik is no different! But we’ve only received one such release so far, from the Hillary Clinton campaign. She’s vowing “to end the Bush Administration’s war on science” and proposing some changes, such as rescinding the ban on stem cell research funding, banning political appointees from interfering with scientific conclusions and publications, and directing agency heads to establish safeguards against political pressure that threatens scientific integrity.

    Don’t mean to draw current politics into this, but as stated in the post, politics has a very real impact on science. Politics drove the space race. And it’s nice if we can look back at achievements like Sputnik and everything that followed and see a way forward to further the progress of science. That’s been hampered by some political decisions lately, so it would be nice if things could change.

    And I’m no Hillary shill. I fully expect candidates from both parties to issue related statements now that one did. That’s the way it works…

  29. KaiYeves

    “How nice to launch ‘husky’ into space, Russia.”
    Why not? Huskies got us to the Poles, didn’t they?
    Has anybody else been getting mental flashes of Russian letters, rockets, the sound of liftoff and the like? Or is it just my crazy writer’s imagination?

    “Beep”
    Never
    “Beep”
    Stop
    “Beep”
    Exploring

  30. Patrick

    Very nice post. Your comments about the benefits of going into space and human failings that sometimes drive that exploration made me think. Don’t you think those of us who support space exploration and do not work for NASA or other government programs have an obligation to speak strongly against the militarization of space?

    It it Bush Administration policy to dominant space militarily (as part of “full spectrum dominance”). It is a very dangerous development in our history that a government will have the power both to see all over the globe and to destroy infrastructure or strike people dead.

    Like it or not, aside from being a really useful program, NASA is also the face that is used to sell military space programs to the public. I humbly submit that we contribute to that unless we speak against the latter.

  31. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, Patrick, ya dinna understand that politics and prostitution are both natural to us critters and both are about equally ancient. From the establishment of the first beer swilling, permanent communities, the milatary dictum has been, “He who controls the high ground, wins,,,”.
    It really takes a global civilization to establish a human presence in the high frontier and concomittant with that hiarchical structure is the necessity for a military machine. I seriously doubt we could rationalize the large expenditures of assets required for establishing the high frontier without the excuse of a dynamic military presence. It really is about having an excuse to spend lots of money.

    Maybe someday we’ll be able to make long term investment choices for totally rational reasons, but I expect that will require a bit of evolution.

    Gary 7

  32. Thanks for the Heavens-Above link BA. I hope to see some satellites soon.

    There’s good, bad, and incomplete Intelligence Ops. Without too many details lets say we had something we wanted to test. We can stand outside and test it. And then when one of the Russian, Aztec, French, Martian, etc, satellites flies over, we have a large crane lift a large structure over it. Sure they might know we’re hiding something, but they wont know exactly what just from the satellite.

    Patrick, I hope to see more space exploration and research done by civilian people and companies. But don’t discount military investments, sometimes that leads to some very neat things. I also think our government should be looking at the military applications in space. It is after all their job to protect their citizens, even if you don’t like the current leader. And treaties with countries that actually obey the treaties are nice, doesn’t mean you should do nothing while your neighbor is building a mangonel to knock down your fence.

  33. Gary Mcleod

    Happy birthday, space age! Here’s to the next 50 years!

  34. Patrick

    Ken:
    I hate to point out the obvious, but no country is threatening to invade the United States and kill large numbers of people in the process.

    On the other hand, thousands of people are currently being killed and the invasion of other countries (Iran) is threatened – by the United States. Please don’t pretend this has anything to do with “protect[ing] their citizens.” This enormous military spending, which dwarfs that of any possible “enemies,” is an enormous fraud, depriving Americans and the world of the benefits those funds could produce if not put into means of destruction. Those benefits include scientific benefits.

    Gary: I don’t think I agree with that pessimistic assessment (after all, many diseases have been cured without a military budget). But, if the trade-off for going to the moon is accepting the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, maybe the moon isn’t so important. I don’t want to draw that conclusion.

  35. I wonder how many jobs wouldn’t exist today if Sputnik had never launched. I know mine wouldn’t, but then I spent a dozen years in satellite ops, and several more testing satellite flight software.

    And would the computer and software industries as we know them even exist if there hadn’t been the pressure to miniaturize computers?

  36. TAMU Student

    “Why not? Huskies got us to the Poles, didn’t they?”

    Yes, but naming the calling the dog Husky is kinda funny, IMO.

    It would be like if we called all the Chimpanzee’s “Chimp”.

  37. slavdude

    Hey Phil,

    If you’re interested (and actually in Boulder), my theater group is putting on a few little shows relating to Sputnik at the Fiske on Saturday (shameless plug and theater-whoring).

    slavdude (the stage manager for the show)

  38. Mena

    Ok, dumb question but I can’t seem to find the answer anywhere. How long did it survive? More than one orbit?

  39. Oh Boy. Patrick, I didn’t say anything about how much should be spent on military spending or who was out to get whom. I merely pointed out that I thought that as technology is expanding I would hope the government doesn’t ignore space when it comes to issues of it’s citizen’s protection.

  40. It makes me proud that I turn 21 on Sputnik 1’s 50th anniversary. I was destined to be a space geek I think.

    Happy birthday beautiful satellite!

  41. Since TAMU Student mentioned Laika, I have to point out that there’s a really fabulous indie graphic novel by that name. It dramatises the story of Laika herself, as well as Sergei Korolev and one of her handlers. The story is heavily mixed with fiction, but it’s still a remarkable story about the atmosphere of the time and the personalities that brought such a historical event into being.

  42. Grand Lunar

    “However, Grand Lunar, I’m pretty sure it was Columbia.”

    Ibrahimon, what mission are you referring to with the EVA you referenced? How long ago did it happen? That’ll clear things up here.

    Oh, have you read Phil’s book? He mentions the phrase “quantum leap” and it’s usage.

  43. PK

    “Sometimes, out of bad comes good.”

    Actually, this happens quite often. This is because “good” and “bad” are not absolutes, but depend on your morality.

  44. Menaon says: “Ok, dumb question but I can’t seem to find the answer anywhere. How long did it survive? More than one orbit?”

    About a year and a half. The orbit was low and circular.

    The US “Vanguard” project (the one that blew up on TV in December 1957) eventually launched its “grapefruit” tracking target payload the following March and it’s still up there. It is in a highly eccentric orbit with an apogee well over 1,000 miles. It is the oldest artificial object in space, having acquired that title after Explorer I (launched January 1958) reentered sometime around 1970.

    – Jack

  45. Correction on my previous post. I was thinking of Sputnik 2. The original Sputnik reentered in January 1958. In other words, their first satellite was down before our first one was up.

    – Jack

  46. StevoR

    # Frank Oswalton said on 04 Oct 2007 at 2:55 am :

    ‘“launched for reasons of pride, territoriality, greed” — do we ever act for reasons other than this?”

    Heck, yes!

    For individuals the drive to make love is probably thestronmgest and most powerful of all biological drives …

    Could be the space race was the the ultimate “mine is bigger than yours” sizeable reproductive organs challenge.

    The BA seemingly implied that Sputnik’s launch was “bad” from which came a “good” set of American responses.

    Not true as I see it – among many others.

    Sputnik was great – and the American accomplishments afterit were great also! ;-)

    If any Saudi’s royals are out there wanting to help the Islamic world and America – well you’ve got the $$$$ available -why don’t you start preparing or even outright buying a space programe? Let’s see a Joint Saudi-Iranian Lunar astationor Martian mission whilst Amercia remains held bacjk by its Christian taleban & thensee how quickly the USA gets going again … ;-)

    Bin Laden in space? – I’d love to see him there ..

    … after as really big missile hit on his cave! ;-)

    KKKKKKAAAAAAABBBBBOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!

  47. StevoR

    # Frank Oswalton said on 04 Oct 2007 at 2:55 am :

    ‘“launched for reasons of pride, territoriality, greed” — do we ever act for reasons other than this?”

    Heck, yes!

    For individuals the drive to make love is probably thestronmgest and most powerful of all biological drives …

    Could be the space race was the the ultimate “mine is bigger than yours” sizeable reproductive organs challenge.

    The BA seemingly implied that Sputnik’s launch was “bad” from which came a “good” set of American responses.

    Not true as I see it – among many others.

    Sputnik was great – and the American accomplishments afterit were great also! ;-)

    If any Saudi’s royals are out there wanting to help the Islamic world and America – well you’ve got the $$$$ available -why don’t you start preparing or even outright buying a space programe? Let’s see a Joint Saudi-Iranian Lunar astationor Martian mission whilst Amercia remains held bacjk by its Christian taleban & thensee how quickly the USA gets going again … ;-)

    Bin Laden in space? – I’d love to see him there ..

    … after a really big missile hit on his cave! ;-)

    KKKKKKAAAAAAABBBBBOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!

  48. StevoR

    Sorry about the double post & typos. Mea culpa.

  49. Ken

    Only the Soviets could do it? I thought Von Braun could have orbited a satellite in 1956 but was ordered not to try.

  50. Ken says: “Only the Soviets could do it? I thought Von Braun could have orbited a satellite in 1956 but was ordered not to try.”

    Basically correct. There were even some government inspectors assigned to making sure that the dummy upper stages on his Juno test vehicles were actually that.

    The reason we didn’t launch an orbital vehicle first is that no one had addressed the legal question of flyover rights from outer space. Eisenhower was afraid that when a U.S. launched satellite passed over Soviet territory (as it had to several times every day), they could use it as a precedent to invasion, or at the least as a propaganda tool bashing “U.S. aggression.” By letting them go first, the problem solved itself.

    – Jack

  51. Dood,

    Absolutely! Blogged it myself. Like your blog too, its very useful.
    See if you can visit my blog and solve my Mystery Tour Of the Universe Episode 1.

    I challenge you to it, considering your such a keen astronomer.

    Regards

    Raj

  52. Mena
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