|The New York Times headline was a model of restraint compared to much of the coverage of Sputnik 1.|
The morning of October 5, 1957 Americans woke up to news that shocked and frightened them. Late the previous evening—about 11:30 October 4 Eastern Standard Time—the Soviet Union successfully placed a man-made object into earth orbit. Two objects, actually—a shiny metal ball about 23 inches in diameter with four whip antennae weighing just over 180 pounds, and the protective rocket nose cone from which it had separated when it reach orbital Space.
The ball, Sputnik 1 was essentially a simple radio transmitter encased in a polished aluminum-magnesium-titanium alloy heat shield made in two hemispheres bolted together and sealed with an O-ring. Its four antennae broadcast simple repeated beeps alternatingly on two broadcast bands that could easily be monitored across the globe by HAM radio operators. An hour after launch, after determining that it had completed one low earth elliptical orbit Soviet authorities had announced their achievement and released information on how radio transmissions could be monitored and how the artificial moon might be observed from earth. Actually only the nose cone was large enough to reflect enough light to be seen from earth by the unaided eye. The transmitting satellite, however, could be observed by telescope.
Sputnik was launched from a remote base near Tyuratam in the Kazakh SSR, the site for testing of R-7 two stage rockets. In a final race against time, the launch facility had been completed only weeks before the successful launch.
The Soviets had determined to proceed with a project to launch an artificial satellite in January of 1956 after learning that President Eisenhower had announced plans to launch an American one during the much ballyhooed International Geophysical Year (IGY) scheduled to last 18 months from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958. What they didn’t realize was that the American effort was lagging due to the unreliability of the primary launch vehicle, the Navy’s Vanguard rocket.
The project was divided into two parts—the development and construction of the satellite, and the development of a reliable and powerful two stage rocket which would, not coincidentally, be suitably adaptable for use in the creation of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of carrying and delivering a heavy nuclear war head.
Work on the creation of an ambitious satellite was divided between five industrial/scientific ministries under the loose coordination of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Original specifications for an object that would weigh between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds including a 700 lb. payload of scientific instruments and experiments. It was to be able to transmit data to ground stations. But when the various ministries delivered their parts, they did not fit together due to variations in specifications. Worse, the heavy package proved to be more than the troubled R-7 rockets could handle
From May 15 to July 12 three attempts to launch an R-7 failed. A fourth attempt on August 21 was partially successful—the head successful separated achieved orbital space but had to be destroyed upon re-entering the atmosphere. A fifth test had similar results. While this meant that the R-7 was not yet ready for use as an ICBM, it was determined that it was capable of deploying a light weight satellite.
Given the problems with the two components, the launch date for Object D was pushed back to April 1958 by which time glitches in the satellite itself and the launch vehicle could be ironed out.
But Soviet officials worried that the delay would allow the U.S. to reach space first. They ordered the hasty construction of a stripped bare satellite with greatly decreased weight. The only real pay load was the radio transmitter, critical in proving to the world that the Soviet Union got there first.
The Council of Ministers approved a plan to develop the basic devise in February. Two were ordered. The first was delivered to the launch site in late September, just as the R-7 rocket was deemed reliable for launch. Within days it was in orbit. The second Sputnik was successfully launched in December after the spectacular explosion of America’s Vanguard 1 on the launch pad.
In Washington President Eisenhower took the news with his usual calm equability. Intelligence over flights in high flying U-2 spy aircraft had provided photos of the launch complex and the Soviet defense establishment had even quietly announced the development—prematurely as it turned out—of an operational ICBM after the first semi-successful test of the R-7.
In one critical way, he was relieved that the Soviets had got their satellite up first—it was a potential slice through a Gordian Knot of international law. The Soviets were voraciously complaining about over flight of American high altitude balloons exploring the edge of space violated their air rights. He wasn’t sure if the Russians had yet detected the U-2 flights at near the same altitude. The U.S. wanted to argue that space was beyond air rights, that it was international and free to any nation. Since Sputnik would fly over the US, Eisenhower was confident he could use that a president for the American position.
The President was also confident that the impending launch of Vanguard I would surpass the Soviet achievement.
Ike was shocked by the hysterical, almost panicky response from the press and public alike who were soon joined by swarms of Congressmen and Senators demanding to know how America had lost a Space Race it didn’t even realize we were in.
America of the 1950’s was awash in two things—paranoia about the Soviet Union and Godless Communism and a fascination with space travel that seemed nearly at hand. America’s good Germans led by former Nazi V-2 developer Werner Von Braun were assumed to be better than the bad German scientists that the Soviets had dragged into Russia. Von Braun was a ubiquitous television personality, collaborating with Walt Disney on elaborate animations of a future space station and trips to the Moon and beyond.
Science fiction films and the lurid covers of paperback novels and pulp magazines were filled with sleek space ships, all somehow resembling huge versions of Von Braun’s V-2. The dawn of an American space age seemed inevitable and a hand. If they thought at all about a Soviet space program it was with the assurance that their science and technology were primitive, years behind the US.
No here the Ruskies were, flying high over our very heads with who knows what intentions. If they could put up a satellite, could they bombard the states with nukes from space, or zap us with death rays.”
In response to the uproar Eisenhower went on TV to reassure the public that the US would soon be back in the game. He ordered the launch of the Vanguard I moved up. That launch failed on national television on December 6.
Meanwhile the Army Ballistic Missile Agency was ordered to hastily revive scrapped plans for a launch vehicle and stripped down satellite similar to Sputnik. The 38 lb. satellite was successfully launched on January 31, 1958—a least within the promised IGY window.
Sputnik 1 had burned up upon re-entering the atmosphere on January 4 after completing 1400 orbits. Its radio transmitter had emitted those beeps for 22 days, long after the expected failure of the battery.