57 years ago from today, October 4, 1957 at 10:28:34 PM Moscow Time, a specially modified Soviet R-7 rocket loaded with the PS-1 object left the launching pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. As the small payload was completing its first orbit around the Earth, the Soviet News Agency, ASS, announced the successful launch to the world. PS-1, Prosteishy Sputnik or “simplest satellite” had reached Outer Space.
Official Soviet Decree number 149-88ss authorized swift development of an artificial satellite. The issuance of the decree on January 30, 1956, specified that an unoriented satellite, designated “Object D” should be ready for launch before the end of 1957. The total mass of “Object D” could be no more than 1400 kilograms because that was the maximum payload capability of the Soviet R-7 ballistic missile.
Technical snags regarding miniaturization and durability of the electronic scientific portion of “Object D” were encountered in 1956. Because the decree specified a satellite orbit by the end of the next year, the space agency proposed an alternate offer to the government. The plan was to launch a bare-bones test satellite, without the scientific equipment on board. The stand-in for “Object D” was the simplest satellite, Prosteishy Sputnik, or PS-1. PS-1 weighed less than 100 kilograms and could possibly be launched in the spring of 1957.
Meantime, a specially modified version of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile was built to carry the PS-1. The test versions of the Soviet ICBM were called “R-7”. The R-7 was devoid of a nuclear warhead, guidance system, and offensive flight control hardware. A newly purposed, alternate set of guidance technology was installed into the R-7.
While the R-7 and Prosteishy Sputnik-1 were being readied, an agreement was made in February of 1957 to include a radio transmitter to broadcast pulse signals, only, as the main component of the satellite. The design and construction took place outside the Cosmodrome area.
Three unsuccessful trial launches of R-7 rockets took place between May and August of 1957. The trial of the fourth test R-7 on August 21st worked. The dummy warhead reached the desired altitude and velocity then was scuttled. A fifth trial took place on September 7th with similar results. The State Commission then decided to use the next R-7 vehicle to carry the nearly ready PS-1. On September 22nd, the sixth R-7 arrived at the Cosmodrome, to be fitted with the Prosteishy Sputnik-1. Preparations were made for launch early the next month.
Finally, on October 4, 1957 at 19:28:34 UTC (October 5th at the Cosmodrome), the R-7 rocket’s boosters fired and lifted the vehicle from the ground. After the separation from the R- 7’s second stage, the Prosteishy Sputnik-1 separated and the radio transmitter began it’s beep tones. At the same time the R-7 second stage telemetry continued to transmit until it re-entered and burned up in the atmosphere.
After the mission control crew on the ground verified the PS-1 signal, the space agency phoned Premier Nikita Khrushchev to relay the good news. Shortly after that, TASS transmitted their pre-written press release to the rest of the world.
Khruschev was elated about the news for two reasons. 1. He realized the vast propaganda value of the Sputnik. 2. He was a recent convert to the value of rocketry for non-military purposes. Sputnik became a personal inspiration for him. People in the Soviet Bloc saw Sputnik as a beacon of hope for the dispossessed and oppressed masses.
Of course, the West, especially the United States, interpreted Sputnik 1 as a threat, and visualized an imminent nuclear victory of the USSR over the US. Still other, less politicized, people saw Sputnik 1 as the first baby step in mankind’s exploration of Outer Space.
I don’t know if anybody bothered to tell me about Sputnik 1 when it was launched. I was only a four-year-old at the time. It wasn’t until a few years later, after the political fear had mellowed a bit, that my schoolmates and I learned about Sputnik. Then, we mostly found inspiration from Sputnik and the later American efforts to match and surpass the Soviet missions.
Folks of about my age, belong to the first generation to grow up in the Space Age. Although we were indoctrinated about the political repression on the other side of the “Iron Curtain”, we also harbored curiosity about the USSR and their technology. Some of us wondered if we could ever find peace with Russia so we could work together to explore the Solar System.
As we reached our teens, many of us became impatient with the leadership on both sides of the “Iron Curtain”. Why couldn’t Washington and Moscow just get over themselves? Why did the leaders concentrate so much on the military application of space technology? Why not use it for the betterment of humanity?
People like me saw Sputnik as an inspiration, not as a threat. I connected Sputnik with the Soyuz, Mercury, and Gemini missions. They all fit together as the human journey away from Earth. Even as I understood the Apollo program as a distinctly American exercise, the Moon landings were human accomplishments, not just America’s alone.
Today, when I monitor video feeds from the International Space Station, I see the efforts of several nations, not just two. As I think about the ISS, now, I see the seed of its development in Sputnik 1.
до свидания (da svadenya)
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that not only did Sputnik 1 trigger the space race, it affected pop culture. The satellite inspired columnist Herb Caen, in a “San Francisco Chronicle” OpEd, to coin the word “beatnik” in reference to youth in the “Beat Generation”.