First Satellite

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4 First Satellite

"Announcement of the First Satellite"

Originally published in Pravda, October 5, 1957; also available at NASA (Web site)

On October 4, 1957, the former Soviet Union launched the space satellite Sputnik 1, beating the United States to become the first nation to send an artificial body into Earth orbit. The Soviets' success sparked America into action, and the "space race" reached a fevered pitch. Two Soviet men, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935; pronounced KAHN-stan-teen tsee-ohl-KAHV-skee) and Sergei Korolev (1907–1966; pronounced SEHR-gay KOR-o-lev), were instrumental in enabling the Soviets to launch Sputnik 1.

Although Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, the satellite had been many decades in the making. In fact, the origins of the satellite can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when Tsiolkovsky, a self-educated scientist, pioneered the field of aeronautics (study of flight). His work provided the essential formulas and research necessary for later successful flight efforts. He began his experiments in the 1870s, examining every aspect of space flight. He thought about designs for spacecrafts and launch plans, and he built a mechanism that could measure the effects that accelerated gravity has on the human body. Tsiolkovsky also produced revolutionary work concerning aerodynamics (the study of the motion of air and gaseous fluids), the shape of aircraft wings, and internal combustion engines.

By 1896 Tsiolkovsky had developed all the formulas necessary to plot the trajectory, or flight path, of a spacecraft. The following year he designed and built the first Russian wind tunnel, which propelled air over various types of aircraft and tested his theories. Then he wrote a well-received paper, "Air Pressure on Surfaces Introduced into an Artificial Air Flow," which earned him a research grant from the Russian Academy of Sciences. This paper puts forth a formula known as the basic rocket equation (mathematical formulas that describe how to build and launch a rocket.) Throughout the remainder of his career, which lasted until 1935, Tsiolkovsky pioneered work in the field of aeronautics and astronautics (the study of the construction and operation of vehicles for space travel) that is now regarded as the basis upon which all rocket science—and subsequently the development of the first satellite—is built.

Rocket engineer Korolev was a sharp contrast to Tsiolkovsky. Credited with developing the staged rocket (a rocket that ignites at specified stages in order to propel an object long distances into space), he was born a generation later and benefited from the best schooling and training. He designed his first glider (an aircraft similar to an airplane but without an engine) at the age of seventeen, later earning a spot at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute and then at the Moscow Higher Technical University. He continued working on gliders until 1931, when his interest in rocketry led him to found the Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion (GIRD). At the same time, the American scientist Robert H. Goddard (1882–1945; see entry) was conducting research on rocket-propelled aircraft. Although Korolev did not know it, Goddard had already flown the first liquid-propelled rockets. Shortly after founding the agency, Korolev succeeded in accomplishing the same feat with the GIRD-9 and GIRD-10 rockets. For two years he and his partner conducted tests before the military placed GIRD under the supervision of the Reaction Propulsion Scientific Institute (RNII). During this time Korolev worked on his gliders and rockets, building the RP-318, the first rocket-propelled manned aircraft. Korolev's partner, Soviet engineer Valentin Petrovich Glushko (1908–1989), designed the ORM-65 rocket engine that propelled the craft.

In 1938, prior to the launch of the aircraft, Glushko was thrown into prison by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). Fearing for his life, Glushko denounced Korolev as an enemy of the state. Korolev was sentenced to ten years of hard labor. Stalin recognized the importance of aeronautics and began a program known as "sharashakas" to exploit prison laborers for work in scientific experiments. An aircraft designer who was also imprisoned and part of this program, Sergei Tupolev (1906–1966), stepped in on Korolev's behalf and requested that the government allow Korolev to assist in experiments. In September 1940 Korolev, his health destroyed by the brutal labor camp, was transferred back to Moscow (capital city of Russia and of the former Soviet Union) to work for the TSKB-39 sharashaka. He was able to continue his work on rockets only in the evening, after his work for the government was completed. The rocket he spent a year designing and building, the RP-318, was flown on February 28, 1940. Korolev was not present for the launch.

For the next twenty years Korolev worked on ballistic missile projects. (A ballistic missile propels itself upward for the first half of its flight but then falls freely downward toward its target.) He was also involved in the Soviet attempt to build a version of the British V-2 rocket. In the early 1950s Korolev began working with German scientists who were attempting to build the first intercontinental (capable of traveling between continents) booster rocket to be used as a ballistic missile. Without the knowledge of the German scientists, Korolev used some of their theories and began to develop a rocket of his own. Later known as the R-7, his rocket was capable of traveling farther than the rocket being designed by the Germans. After years of setbacks and problems, the R-7 was launched successfully on August 21, 1957. Less than two months later the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be sent into orbit. Sputnik 1 was a small, spherical (globe-shaped) object 58 centimeters (22.8 inches) in diameter, which weighed just over 86 pounds (39 kilograms). Equipped with two transmitters, it was able to send signals back to scientific stations situated all over the Soviet Union. With the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviets made the first significant impact in the field of astronautics.

Things to remember while reading "Announcement of the First Satellite":

  • By sending an object into space and successfully putting it into orbit, Soviet scientists felt that manned spaceflight was the next logical step. This view was shared by American and German scientists. The success of Sputnik 1 allowed scientists all over the world to cease regarding interplanetary travel as a dream and start thinking about it as an eventual reality.
  • The successful launch of Sputnik 1 was a great shock to the United States. The Soviets heralded it as a victory and as proof that Communist nations could compete with democratic countries. In many ways, the space race was as much about proving the supremacy of a certain political ideology as it was about getting a man to the Moon. American president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) immediately signed an act forming the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to begin work on launching a manned spacecraft.
  • Many Americans feared that the launch of Sputnik 1 had initiated a new era in hostile relations with the Soviets. Afraid that the Soviet Union would be able to launch spy satellites and ballistic missiles, the American public was highly supportive of the NASA space program.

"Announcement of the First Satellite"

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbitingsatellite to support the scientific research effort undertakenby several nations during the 1957–58International Geophysical Year. The Soviets called the satellite "Sputnik," or "fellow traveler," and reported the achievement in atersely worded press release issued by the official news agency, Tass. The report was printed in the October 5 issue of Pravda. The United States had also been working on a scientific satellite program, Project Vanguard, but had not yet launched a satellite.

For several years scientific research and experimental design work have been conducted in the Soviet Union on the creation of artificial satellites of the earth.

As already reported in the press, the first launching of the satellites in the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; the Soviet Union] were planned for realization in accordance with the scientific research program of the International Geophysical Year.

As a result of very intensive work by scientific research institutes and designbureaus the first artificial satellite in the world has been created. On October 4, 1957, this first satellite was successfully launched in the USSR. According topreliminary data, the carrier rocket has imparted to the satellite the required orbitalvelocity of about 8000 meters per second. At the present time the satellite is describingelliptical trajectories around the earth, and its flight can be observed in the rays of the rising and setting sun with the aid of very simpleoptical instruments (binoculars, telescopes, etc.).

According to calculations which now are being supplemented by direct observations, the satellite will travel at altitudes up to 900 kilometers above the surface of the earth; the time for a complete revolution of the satellite will be one hour and thirty-five minutes; the angle ofinclination of its orbit to theequatorial plane is 65 degrees. On October 5 the satellite will pass over the Moscow area twice—at 1:46 a.m. and at 6:42 a.m. Moscow time. Reports about the subsequent movement of the first artificial satellite launched in the USSR on October 4 will be issued regularly by broadcasting stations.

The satellite has a spherical shape 58 centimeters [22.8 inches] in diameter and weighs 83.6 kilograms. It is equipped with two radio transmitters continuouslyemitting signals atfrequencies of 20.005 and 40.002 megacycles per second (wave lengths of about 15 and 7.5 meters, respectively). The power of the transmitters ensures reliable reception of the signals by a broad range of radio amateurs. The signals have the form oftelegraph pulses of about 0.3 second's duration with a pause of the same duration. The signal of one frequency is sent during the pause in the signal of the other frequency.

Scientific stations located at various points in the Soviet Union are tracking the satellite and determining the elements of its trajectory. Since thedensity of therarified upper layers of the atmosphere is not accurately known, there are no data at present for the precise determination of the satellite's lifetime and of the point of its entry into the dense layers of the atmosphere. Calculations have shown that owing to the tremendous velocity of the satellite, at the end of its existence it will burn up on reaching the dense layers of the atmosphere at an altitude of several tens of kilometers.

As early as the end of the nineteenth century the possibility of realizing cosmic flights by means of rockets was first scientificallysubstantiated in Russia by the works of the outstanding Russian scientist K[onstatin] E. Tsiolkovskii [Tsiolkovsky].

The successful launching of the first man-made earth satellite makes a most important contribution to the treasure-house of world science and culture. The scientific experiment accomplished at such a great height is of tremendous importance for learning the properties of cosmic space and for studying the earth as a planet of our solar system.

During the International Geophysical Year the Soviet Union proposes launching several more artificial earth satellites. These subsequent satellites will be larger and heavier and they will be used to carry out programs of scientific research.

Artificial earth satellites will pave the way to interplanetary travel and, apparently our contemporaries will witness how the freed andconscientious labor of the people of the newsocialist society makes the most daring dreams of mankind a reality.

What happened next …

The Soviets launched Sputnik 2 on October 5. The capsule not only carried a heavier payload, or cargo, than Sputnik 1, but it also transported the first passenger into space: a dog named Laika. Korolev immediately began to pressure the Soviet government to focus on a manned spaceflight. Although reluctant, the government agreed and made Korolev the head of the effort to design the spacecraft. Korolev was not given complete freedom, however. He was required to design the spacecraft with specifications that allowed the government to fulfill its intentions to use spacecraft for spying purposes. He designed the Vostok manned space program, which sent the first human being, cosmonaut (astronaut) Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968), into orbit on April 12, 1961.

Korolev continued to work for the Soviet government, particularly in the development of ballistic missiles. This program contributed to the escalating arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Modifications of his Vostok rocket designs allowed the Soviets to build and launch the Soyuz, the world's first reusable spacecraft, which is now called a space shuttle. (Still in operation in 2004, the Soyuz is the longest-serving spacecraft in the world. A space shuttle is a vehicle that transports people and cargo between Earth and space.) Korolev died unexpectedly in 1966 from complications following cancer surgery. Two weeks later, the Luna 9 probe he had designed landed on the Moon and sent back the first photographs ever taken from the surface. Political squabbling and lack of government funds prevented the Soviet Union from developing a manned Moon exploration program. Thus the United States was the first nation to land humans on the Moon. On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930–) stepped out of the Apollo 11 spacecraft onto the lunar surface. Within fifteen minutes he was followed by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (1930–) (see Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. entry).

In the meantime, Russian scientists had been focusing their efforts on developing a space station called the Salyut. (Often termed a "hotel" or "house" in the sky, a space station is a craft that permanently orbits Earth and serves as a base for trips into outer space.) The Salyut was successfully launched in April 1971. The following October, Soyuz transported three cosmonauts to the Salyut, becoming the first craft to orbit Earth with a multimember crew. The cosmonauts also performed the first spacewalk.

After taking the Salyut out of service, the Soviet Union launched the Mir space station. It remained in orbit for more than fifteen years, until 2001, although it was officially vacated in 1999. During that time the space station was almost continually occupied. A total of one hundred cosmonauts and astronauts from other nations conducted nearly 16,500 experiments during those years, primarily on how humans adapt to long-term space flight. Civilians also visited Mir, among them a Japanese journalist and a British candy maker. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Russia (formerly the largest Soviet state) began maintaining friendly relations with the United States. The two countries began working together on space ventures, including missions to Mir. By 1999 seven NASA astronauts had stayed aboard Mir. When the space station was taken out of orbit in 2001, most of the craft burned up over the Pacific Ocean. The remaining remnants crashed into the Pacific in 2004.

Did you know …

  • Recently declassified government documents reveal that President Eisenhower purposefully delayed American efforts to send a satellite into orbit. Eisenhower argued that by allowing the Soviets to launch a satellite first, the United States would have the legal right to launch subsequent spy satellites. He felt that the Soviets being the first to launch a satellite would have little or no effect on American morale. Eisenhower was wrong. Many wonder how the face of the space race would have changed had Eisenhower allowed the American and German scientists working for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA; the forerunner to NASA) to launch their satellite in January 1957.
  • Before working for the Soviet space agency, Korolev was sentenced to ten years of hard labor in the Kolyma gold mines. This was essentially a death sentence. Had Sergei Tupolev not intervened on his behalf, Korolev would have died in prison.
  • Korolev's Luna 9 lander marks the last time the Soviet Union achieved a significant accomplishment in space first. Historians feel that had Korolev lived, he might have enabled the Soviet space program to send a man to the Moon before the United States.

Consider the following …

  • When the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, many Americans felt as though the national pride of the United States had been hurt. If another nation, such as China or Russia, is able to send the first manned spacecraft to Mars, do you think Americans would be upset? Would you? Why or why not?
  • Ask your teacher to explain the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1957. If you had been the U.S. president and you knew that American scientists could send a satellite into orbit, would you have allowed them? Or do you think that President Eisenhower's decision was a good one? For instance, do you think the president was correct in wanting to wait until the United States could launch spy satellites? Why or why not?

For More Information


Dickson, Paul. Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Trade, 2003.

Harford, James. Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon. New York: Wiley, 1997.


Frazier, Allison. "They Gave Us Space: Space Pioneers of the 20th Century." Ad Astra (January/February 2000): pp. 25–26.

Gautier, Daniel James. "Sergei Pavlovich Korolev." Ad Astra (July/August 1991): p. 27.

Web Sites

"'Announcement of the First Satellite.' from Pravda, October 5, 1957." NASA. (accessed on August 2, 2004).

"The Early Space Stations (1969–1985)." (accessed on August 2, 2004).

Lethbridge, Cliff. "Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky." Spaceline. (accessed on August 2, 2004).

"Mir." RussianSpaceWeb. (accessed on August 2, 2004).

"Sergei Korolev—Sputnik Biographies." NASA. (accessed on August 2, 2004).

"Soyuz Spacecraft." RussianSpaceWeb. (accessed on August 2, 2004).

"Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age." (accessed on August 2, 2004).

Satellite: An object orbiting Earth, the Moon, or another celestial body.

International Geophysical Year: An eighteen-month period (July 1957–December 1958) of maximum sunspot activity, designated for cooperative study of the Sun-Earth environment by scientists of sixty-seven nations.

Tersely: Shortly or abruptly.

Bureaus: Specialized administrative units.

Preliminary: Introductory; first.

Velocity: Quickness of motion; speed.

Elliptical trajectories: Oval or curved flight paths made in space.

Optical: Visual.

Inclination: Slope; deviation from the true vertical or horizontal.

Equatorial: Located at the equator.

Emitting: Releasing.

Frequencies: Number of complete variations per second of energy in the form of waves.

Telegraph: Apparatus or process for communication at a distance by electronic transmission over wire.

Density: Thickness or solidity, having more mass per unit volume.

Rarified: Very high.

Substantiated: Verified by proof or evidence.

Conscientious: Careful.

Socialist: System or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.

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First Satellite

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