The 4th of October 1957. The site – not far from the secret launch site hidden in the steppes of Kazakhstan that the world would come to know later as Baikonur. At 2.28 in the morning local time, a small metal globe weighing just 83 kilos was blasted into space on board an R7 rocket.
The Soviets were trying to develop a missile system. Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, came literally and figuratively as a spin-off.
For all its glory, Sputnik was a rudimentary creation. An aluminium hemisphere contained a radio transmitter, trailing antennae and battery power. Sputnik burned bright but briefly; in two months it was finished. Its creators did not see it as a major technical achievement; to them, it was a game to pass the time:
“We regarded it as Korolyov’s little toy, when we prepared for its launch, and did not expect the impact the launch of this small ball, with such a simple design, would make for mankind.” said Boris Chertok. He is a retired man of 95 today, but at the time he was a colleague of Sergei Korolyov, the father of the russian space programme. He knew that the US was preparing for its own launch and pushed forward the soviet programme. Sputnik headed for the stars two days early.
The technology behind Sputnik came from Germany and its V2 rocket. At the end of the war, the americans had the advantage. They transported the V2 designers to the US to develop the technology. The Soviets, meanwhile, had to start from scratch. But it turned out to be mission possible. In 1954, the R7 rocket was born.
When Sputnik was launched, the Soviets did not realise what a propaganda coup it would prove to be. It only made for a few lines in Pravda – but hit the front pages in the US, which realised it had lost the first heat of the space race.
“However unpleasant it might sound, the Cold War period stimulated the development of space and satellite technology. If we had lived as peacefully as today, or our life had been as stable as it is today, without any fear that someone may attack, then we would not have put so much money into space technology development.” Chertok says.
The United States was stunned by the news – it was vital to to regain the upper hand. Twelve years later, the Americans had their revenge – by walking on the Moon.