Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Launched by the Soviets in 1957, Sputnik 1 shocked people around the world and created a technological revolution in space exploration. It also launched what became known as the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, as each nation sought to achieve milestones in spaceflight before the other.

Summary of Event

Sputnik 1 (“fellow traveler” in Russian), humankind’s first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, was placed into successful orbit on October 4, 1957, by the Soviet Union. The launch of this small aluminum sphere, 0.58 meter in diameter and weighing 83.6 kilograms, shocked people around the world and created a technological revolution that has yet to end. Space program, Soviet;Sputnik program Sputnik program Satellites, artificial;early experimental programs [kw]Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite (Oct. 4, 1957) [kw]Satellite, Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial (Oct. 4, 1957) Space program, Soviet;Sputnik program Sputnik program Satellites, artificial;early experimental programs [g]Europe;Oct. 4, 1957: Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite[05620] [g]Soviet Union;Oct. 4, 1957: Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite[05620] [c]Cold War;Oct. 4, 1957: Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite[05620] [c]Space and aviation;Oct. 4, 1957: Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite[05620] [c]Engineering;Oct. 4, 1957: Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite[05620] [c]Science and technology;Oct. 4, 1957: Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite[05620] Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin Oberth, Hermann Goddard, Robert H. Korolev, Sergei Braun, Wernher von Clarke, Arthur C.

Orbiting Earth every ninety-six minutes, at 28,962 kilometers per hour, Sputnik 1 came within 215 kilometers of the earth at its closest point (perigee) and 939 kilometers away at its farthest point (apogee). Humankind’s first artificial satellite carried equipment to measure atmospheric density and to conduct experiments on the transmission of electromagnetic waves from space. Equipped with two radio transmitters (at different frequencies) that broadcast for twenty-one days, Sputnik 1 was in orbit for ninety-two days until January 4, 1958, when it disintegrated in the atmosphere.

Sputnik 1.


The significance of the successful launch of Sputnik 1 came not from its size but from the implications of the philosophy and technology that lay behind the launch. The successful orbit of Sputnik 1 had been achieved by using a modified Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Missiles;intercontinental ballistic (ICBM), constructed under the guidance of Soviet rocket expert Sergei Korolev.

Within a month of Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2 was successfully placed into orbit by the Soviet Union, and this “fellow traveler” had an orbital payload of 508.3 kilograms. A single quotation sets the tone of the initial post-Sputnik period in the United States and, perhaps, around the world. Chester Bowles Bowles, Chester , a former United States ambassador to India and Nepal from 1951 to 1953, wrote in “The New Challenge” "New Challenge, The" (Bowles)[New Challenge, The] in 1958 that “armed with a nuclear warhead, the rocket which launched Sputnik 1 could destroy New York, Chicago or Detroit 18 minutes after the button was pushed in Moscow.”

Although the general public may have been shocked by the worldwide headlines that resulted from the launch of Sputnik 1, the achievement came as no surprise to individuals who followed rocketry issues. In June of 1957, the United States Air Force issued a nonclassified memorandum stating that there was every reason to believe that the Russian satellite shot would be made on the hundredth anniversary of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s birth.

William E. Burrows pointed out in his publication Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security: “Whatever else they were, however, Sputnik and its booster rocket were not surprises to President Eisenhower and the intelligence specialists who reported to the National Security Council.” The June 2, 1957, edition of The New York Times even reported on a Soviet newspaper article that stated: “We have created the rockets and all the instruments and equipment necessary to solve the problem of the artificial earth satellite.” On August 27, 1957, Telegraphnoye Agentstvo Sovyetskovo Soyuza (TASS), the telegraph agency of the Soviet Union, announced the launch of an ICBM by the Soviet Union. Sputnik 1, which came a few months later, was no surprise, and the “race into space” was on in earnest.

Sputnik 1 was placed into orbit utilizing a modified ICBM as a booster rocket. Rockets Rockets , from the Italian word rochetta (lance cover), have been used by humans since at least the twelfth century, when sources reveal that Europeans and Chinese were using black powder devices. In 1659, the Polish engineer Kazimir Semenovich published his Roketten für Luft und Wasser (rockets for air and water), which had a drawing of a three-stage rocket, and in 1687, Sir Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (published in English in 1729, two years after his death, as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), wherein it was pointed out that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, an important principle in rocketry.

Rockets were used and perfected for warfare during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This perfection contributed eventually to the launch of Sputnik 1. Although Sputnik 1 was important for purely scientific reasons, military and commercial implications were not lost to individuals and governments around the world.

Nazi Germany’s Vergektungswaffe 2, or V-2 rocket (thousands of which were launched by Germany against England in 1944 and 1945, during the closing years of World War II), was the prototype for American and Soviet rocket designers in the 1945 to 1957 period. In the Soviet Union, Tsiolkovsky had been thinking and writing about spaceflight since the last decade of the nineteenth century, and in 1934, Korolev published his own work entitled Rocket Flight into the Stratosphere. Rocket Flight into the Stratosphere (Korolev) In the United States, Robert H. Goddard had been thinking about and experimenting with rockets since the first decade of the twentieth century, and in 1919, the Smithsonian Institution published his A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, A (Goddard)

In 1922, Hermann Oberth, a schoolmaster inspired at the age of twelve by the nineteenth century works of the French novelist Jules Verne, wrote to Goddard to obtain a copy of the Smithsonian publication. In 1923, Oberth published Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen Rakete zu den Planetenräumen, Die (Oberth) (the rocket into planetary space), and in 1925, Oberth and Tsiolkovsky began corresponding and exchanging ideas about rocketry plans. As Wernher von Braun and Frederick I. Ordway Ordway, Frederick I., III III wrote in their History of Rocketry and Space Travel: “As the writings of Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth attained wider circulation, a growing number of rocket enthusiasts began the work that led directly to space flight,” and, hence, to the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957.

Von Braun had worked on various rocket projects for Nazi Germany during World War II and, as the war was ending in May, 1945, von Braun and several hundred other individuals involved in German rocket projects surrendered to Americans in Europe. Hundreds of other German rocket experts also ended up in the Soviet Union to continue with their research. Tom Bower pointed out in his The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Hunt for the Nazi Scientists (1987), so named because American “recruiting officers had identified ’Nazi’ scientists to be offered contracts by slipping an ordinary paperclip onto their files,” that American rocketry research benefited tremendously because of Nazi scientists who switched their allegiances after World War II.

The successful launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, convinced the experts, as well as the general public, that space activities were no longer in the realm of science fiction. The successful launch of Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957, carrying humankind’s first space traveler, a dog named Laika Laika (who was mercifully poisoned in orbit because there were no plans to retrieve her), demonstrated that the technology of the Soviet Union was indeed formidable and the launch of Sputnik 1 was not an isolated phenomenon.


The success of Sputnik 1 unleashed both technical and political responses. Politically, Americans began to wonder how a Communist system could have beaten the West to the punch in the exploration of space. Concerned educational experts launched whole new programs emphasizing modern math and science training. President John F. Kennedy would later announce in May, 1961, American intentions to land men on the moon, a goal realized before the end of that decade, with the landing of American astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969.

Sputnik, then, provoked an intensification of what was called the “space race.” With the launch of Sputnik 1, the plans of designers and dreamers, rocketry friends and foes, came to a focal point in a relatively small artificial satellite. After October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union and other nations launched additional experimental satellites, and the United States successfully orbited its first artificial satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958, after the first United States launch of a Vanguard satellite failed on December 6, 1957.

On the technical side, Sputnik 1 was the forerunner of numerous satellites orbiting Earth, which provide individuals not only with scientific data but also with various commercial applications from satellites at various altitudes. If one thinks of a satellite, equipped with the proper electronic equipment, as a tower in the sky, then something at the top of that tower can be used to view things and relay information from the earth below. Arthur C. Clarke published a technical paper in 1945 entitled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” "Extra-Terrestrial Relays" (Clarke)[Extraterrestrial Relays] in which he pointed out that three satellites placed in equatorial orbit at the proper altitude would provide worldwide coverage.

If a satellite were placed in an orbit of 36,000 kilometers over the equator and traveled at 11,068 kilometers per hour (the speed of the rotation of the earth at the equator), then that satellite would appear to be in a stationary position at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers. These communications satellites would abound at the end of the twentieth century, fewer than forty years after Sputnik 1.

The first communications satellite capable of relaying a communications signal from the ground was Echo 1, launched by the United States on August 12, 1960, into an Earth orbit, ranging from 1,524 kilometers (perigee) to 1,684 kilometers (apogee). This satellite was a 75.9-kilogram sphere, which was inflated to a 30-meter balloon once in orbit. This satellite had no capability to amplify or direct the electromagnetic waves reflected off its metallic surface, and it succumbed to meteorite action and decayed by May 24, 1968.

Seven years after the launch of Sputnik 1, on April 6, 1965, a satellite called “Early Bird” was launched into an Earth orbit of 35,003 to 36,606 kilometers by INTELSAT, the International Telecommunications Satellite organization, and commercial telecommunications service via satellite began on April 25, 1965. This was the first satellite that produced the television phrase “live via satellite” between North America and Europe. What was once clearly headline or banner news a few decades ago has become commonplace; multisatellite launches from a single rocket are now common occurrences, and it all began with Sputnik 1. Space program, Soviet;Sputnik program Sputnik program Satellites, artificial;early experimental programs

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, David. The Rocket: The History and Development of Rocket and Missile Technology. New York: Crown, 1978. An excellent overview, from beginning firecrackers to strategic rocketry, this 276-page, well-illustrated and well-indexed volume cannot be surpassed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrett, David M. The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005. Includes a chapter devoted to the Central Intelligence Agency’s response to the launching of Sputnik. Offers a glimpse into the covert political effects of the Soviet satellite and space program. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bower, Tom. The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Hunt for the Nazi Scientists. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Fascinating account of “Operation Paperclip” and how the United States worked with rocket scientists from Nazi Germany after World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowles, Chester. “The New Challenge.” In Britannica Book of the Year, edited by Walter Yust. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958. A valuable “jumping off” point for general research, the Book of the Year also helps place events within the context of the times. Although telecommunications through satellites has developed tremendously, this source does not have a single reference to the potential of satellites to be used as communication devices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowser, Hal. “How the Space Race Changed America: An Interview with Walter A. McDougall.” American Heritage of Invention & Technology 15 (Fall, 1987): 24-30. The key journal on invention and technology. Bowser’s interview is an excellent companion piece to McDougall’s book (cited below).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarke, Arthur C. Ascent to Orbit: A Scientific Autobiography, the Technical Writings of Arthur C. Clarke. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984. Clarke, now termed the “father” of satellite communications by many, is both a gifted science-fiction and science-fact author. This volume, by the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), covers his technical writings from the early pioneering 1945 essay to comments on telecommunications and the “global village.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King-Hele, D. G., et al. The R. A. E. Table of Earth Satellites, 1957-1982. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1983. Provides readers with exceptionally detailed chronological information on the 2,389 launches of space vehicles and satellites between 1957 and 1982. An informative compendium.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ley, Willy. Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space. New York: Viking Press, 1968. An outstanding overview. Includes science fiction as well as mythological and historical interests in space.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDougall, Walter A. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books, 1985. An excellent overview into political activities before and after the launch of Sputnik 1.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Braun, Wernher, and Frederick I. Ordway III. History of Rocketry and Space Travel. Rev. ed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969. A well-illustrated companion piece to the Baker publication (cited above). Unique because of the role von Braun played in both Nazi Germany and United States rocketry experiments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winter, Frank H. Prelude to the Space Age: The Rocket Societies, 1924-1940. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983. The key volume for information about the rocket societies of the time period. For a wide audience.

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