The launch of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957, started the space race between the Soviet Union and United States.
Both countries were working fast to see how they could send man-made objects into orbit, and in response to US President Dwight Eisenhower’s pledge to send an American satellite into orbit in 1957 to celebrate the International Geophysical Year, the Soviet space engineers raced to launch their satellite first.
In response to the launch, the US developed its own space programme, and created NASA. Experts have argued that without the Soviet Sputnik it would have taken America significantly longer to put a man on the moon.
2. Sputnik was heard as well as seen
Lots of people claim to have seen Sputnik, but they may very well have only seen its rocket booster, which was far larger and on a similar orbit.
However, the 58cm Sputnik did fly down to 230 kilometres in altitude from its most distant point at 940 kilometres, so, carefully tracked, it was visible.
But the big news was the amateur radio buffs could hear Sputnik as it orbited Earth.
The satellite was simple, basically a temperature control system and a transmitter, and it transmitted at a frequency that was easy to tune in to, resulting in a significant PR coup for the Soviet Union at the time.
3. Sputnik inspired a generation
“When I heard that signal, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” recounted Roger-Maurice Bonnet, former director of science at the European Space Agency.
And it wasn’t just scientists that were inspired.
“The U.S. government’s push for scientific education was made easier in many ways by Sputnik,” wrote Ker Than. “The satellite was a technological marvel that inspired an entire generation of students—and not just aspiring engineers. Some astronomers trace their interest in space to the Sputnik-era.”
4. Sputnik is an iconic design
Sputnik looks as cool as a comet and as fast as a shooting star. A silver ball a little smaller than a space hopper, with four antennae shooting backwards from its outer edge, the world’s first spacecraft looked fleet and fast, even on the ground.
Its design was in line with the streamlined shapes of the times – just think of any late 1950s automobile – and its outline is instantly recognisable even today.
5. Sputnik was misunderstood
“People often misunderstand its importance, they think it’s because it was a satellite, but the key threat from Sputnik was, of course, the missile that put it into space,” John Krige, historian of science and technology at Georgia Tech, told Euronews.
“It was an intercontinental ballistic missile that the Soviet Union had developed, they tested it just the month before for the very first time, and for the first time in its recent history the United States felt threatened.”