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A disassembled model of the PS-1 satellite at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow. (credit: Asif Siddiqi)

Sputnik remembered: The first race to space (part 2)

<< page 1: the launch

Sputnik in orbit

Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world visually saw Sputnik (or more likely, the core stage of the R-7, which was more reflective) in orbit. Many heard the famous “beep-beep-beeps.” The duo of orbital payloads was tracked relatively easily through mid-November. After November 15, according to Tikhonravov, it became much harder to identify the payloads, apparently due to “destruction of [material on the] angular reflector” on the core. For a while ionized trails from the core (from venting residual propellants) was visible in the night sky. Newspapers all over the world published the ground track of the satellites so that people could plan optical observations.

The Sputnik satellite meanwhile circled the Earth for 1,440 orbits before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958. Thus ended the life of the world’s first artificial satellite.

Although the Sputnik launch had no scientific goals per se, it did contribute to certain fields. Soviet scientists used observational data to try and determine the coefficient of absorption of radio waves in the ionosphere and to develop a model of the ionosphere’s effect on the diffusion of radio waves. There were also attempts to develop methods to determine electron concentrations above the maximum layer F2 (The F layer has the highest concentration of electrons and ions in the atmosphere). The satellite’s radio transmitters provided useful information during the three weeks that they successfully sent out their “beep-beep-beeps.” According to the “data” that they transmitted, it was determined that while the radio transmitters were working, the temperature and pressure inside the satellite remained within design limits. Engineers could confidently say that there had been no damage due to micro-meteoroids. According to Tikhonravov, Sputnik’s radio beeps were tracked at distances of six to eight thousand kilometers and at some points as far as 16,000 to 17,000 kilometers from the source.

The satellite was not the only object transmitting information: there was a working telemetry system known as Tral on board the orbiting core booster. Tral was originally designed for monitoring various systems of the rocket during ballistic flight, but was included on this launch, partly to verify whether it could be used on future orbital missions. (It was later used on Sputnik 2). Concern that Tral’s operation would interfere with the radio transmitters on Sputnik proved unfounded.

Observations from the dozens of DOSAAF amateur radio clubs were useful. Their monitoring equipment had two antennas: when the satellite entered or exited the zone of radio visibility, the signal received on one of the antennas was more powerful than the other. When the satellite was equidistant from the two antennas, then the signals were of equal strength. By knowing the exact time of the signal reception, amateurs were able to very roughly map the location of the satellite. Besides radio reception, optical observations were carried out not only by DOSAAF clubs all but also by other amateurs, university students, and laypeople. Because the core was the brighter of the two objects—it was at magnitude 2 while the satellite was at magnitude 5 to 6—it was more likely to be visible by the naked eye. Soviet AT-1 telescopes were made available at select urban settings for regular people to observe the satellites.51

The Sputnik core booster, given its larger dimensions, had a faster rate of orbital decay. On December 2, the booster was tracked slowly falling over a trajectory that took it over Irkutsk (in western Siberia north of Mongolia), the Chukotka peninsula, and Alaska, before coming down off the western coast of the North America. According to Soviet information, the core circled the Earth 882 times before its untimely demise.52 The Sputnik satellite meanwhile circled the Earth for 1,440 orbits before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958. Thus ended the life of the world’s first artificial satellite.

A model of Sputnik at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow. (credit: Asif Siddiqi)


PS-1’s lead designer Mikhail Khomiakov underscored that “frankly speaking, many of us did not understand the full significance of this event.”53 Not one of the Soviet engineers or scientists or politicians truly anticipated the global response. They had expected something, but not on the scale that they saw. Before Korolev left Tiura-Tam, he had asked Khomiakov to stay back to pack up and bring back the entire set of the spare PS-1 model, “an exact copy of the one which was now in orbit around the Earth.” When Khomiakov returned to the design bureau near Moscow, he checked in with Korolev, saying that he was back from his “business trip.” This was the usual way engineers spoke about going to the launch range—an assignment to Tiura-Tam was a “business trip,” a strange euphemism that was accepted as part of the culture of intense secrecy around the missile industry. Korolev responded with “what business trip?” confusing Khomiakov. The Chief Designer raised his voice: “What’s this you say, a business trip, a business trip… Tell your comrades that you have participated in the preparation and launch of the world’s first artificial satellite of the Earth!”54

Not one of the Soviet engineers or scientists or politicians truly anticipated the global response. They had expected something, but not on the scale that they saw.

There was, of course, the political and economic dimensions to be considered, which journalists wrote widely about in the days after the launch. Sputnik punctuated the Cold War in a way that was not unlike another earlier strike to American self-confidence—some called it a “technological Pearl Harbor.” Historians have written many volumes about the effect Sputnik had upon the American psyche, how it led to the formation of NASA, how it increased funding for scientific research and education, and even how it led to the creation of the organization (ARPA) that would later create the seed of the Internet. But there was also a philosophical import to Sputnik. It was the first time in the history of the human race that our handiwork had managed to breach the heavens around us and stay there. The late Soviet journalist Iaroslav Golovanov eloquently summed up this notion in his biography of Korolev: “For the first time on Earth something that had been thrown upwards had not come down again.”55


  1. Korolev, “Predlozheniia o pervykh zapuskakh.”
  2. “Postanovlenie Prezidiuma TsK KPSS o zapuske ISZ s pomoshch’iu rakety R-7 v nachale Mezhdunarodnogo geofizicheskogo goda” (February 15, 1957) in Pervyi pilotiruemyi polet, 87-88.
  3. Poroshkov, “Khronika vazhneishikh sobytii,” 108-109.
  4. Maksimov, “Iz istorii sozdaniya komandno-izmeritel’nogo kompleksa.”
  5. K. V. Gerchik, “Triumf otechestvennoi nauki” in Proryv v kosmos: ocherk ob ispytatelyakh spetsialistakh i stroiteliakh kosmodroma Baikonur, ed., K. V. Gerchik (Moscow: SVKB, 1994), 29-30.
  6. Poroshkov, “Khronika vazhneishikh sobytiy,” 109.
  7. V. P. Mishin, “Nekotorye stanitsy istorii raketno-kosmicheskoy nauki i tekhniki v poslevoennyi period” in Issledovaniia po istorii i teorii razvitiia aviatsionnoi i raketno-kosmicheskoi nauki i tekhniki, vyp. 8-10, ed., B. V. Raushenbakh (Moscow: Nauka, 2001), 50-66.
  8. Memoirs of Tikhonravov in Akademik S. P. Korolev, 447.
  9. The signed document was a Presidium (or Politburo, as it was called at the time) decree no. P114/XXXIII entitled “On the Launch of an Artificial Satellite of the Earth” issued on September 26, 1957. A similarly titled decree of the Council of Ministers (no. 1181-535) was also issued on the same day.
  10. Golovanov, Korolev, 534.
  11. Semenov, Raketno-Kosmicheskaia Korporatsiia, 90. “ISZ” is the Russian abbreviation for “Artificial Satellite of the Earth.” The men who signed it were V. M. Riabikov, M. I. Nedelin, D. F. Ustinov, V. D. Kalmykov, and A. N. Nesmeianov.
  12. Ivanovskii, Rakety v kosmos v sssr, 31-32.
  13. Ivanovskii, Rakety v kosmos v sssr, 31-32.
  14. Golovanov, Korolev, 537-538. The specific paper that caused so much alarm to Korolev was probably Hagen’s “The Satellite Launching Vehicle; Placing the Satellite in Orbit,” which he presented on September 30. See M. Nicolet, ed., Annals of the International Geophysical Year, Vol. IIB: The International Geophysical Year Meetings (Pergamon Press: London, 1959), 640-665.
  15. Golovanov, Korolev, 538; Memoirs of Tikhonravov in Akademik S. P. Korolev, 447-448.
  16. Ivanovskii, rakety i kosmos v sssr, 33.
  17. Golovanov, Korolev, 538; Memoirs of Shabarov in Nachalo kosmicheskoi ery: vospominaniia veteranov raketno-kosmicheskoi tekhniki i kosmonavtiki: vypusk vtoroi, ed., Iu. A. Mozzhorin (Moscow: RNITsKD, 1994), 63
  18. Memoirs of E. V. Shabarov in Nachalo kosmicheskoi ery, 63.
  19. Aleksei Ivanov [Oleg Ivanovskii], Vpervye: zapiski vedushchego konstruktora (Moscow: Moskovskii rabochii, 1982), 35.
  20. Semenov, “Kak zapuskali pervyi sputnik.”
  21. Semenov, “Kak zapuskali pervyi sputnik.”
  22. Memoirs of Kavyzin [Khomiakov] in Akademik S. P. Korolev, 451.
  23. M. I. Verigin and G. A. Kotova, “The Contribution of K. I. Gringauz to Space Research,” Acta Astronautica 43, nos. 1-2 (1998): 23-25; Tamara K. Breus, “An Unforgettable Personality,” Journal of Geophysical Research 102, no. A2 (February 1, 1997): 2027-2034.
  24. Ivanovskii, Rakety i kosmos v sssr, 34.
  25. Memoirs of Shabarov in Nachalo kosmicheskoi ery, 63.
  26. The oxygen level problem at T-5 minutes is from the Memoirs of V. Ia. Khil’chenko in Nachalo kosmicheskoi ery, 230. The official post-flight launch report on Sputnik, however, notes that the one major glitch during launch preparations was related to a faulty sensor measuring propellant loading in the Block B strapon, which was apparently drained of kerosene and then refueled again. See “Osnovnye rezul’taty puska rakety-nositelia…,” 239-242.
  27. Ivan Borisenko and Alexander Romanov, Where All Roads Lead to Space Begin (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), 66.
  28. By July 1995, Chekunov had “launched” 583 rockets from Tiura-Tam (Baikonur). See Mikhail Rebrov, “Kliuch—na start!,” Krasnaia zvezda, July 2, 1995, 2.
  29. Semenov, “Kak zapuskali pervyi sputnik.”
  30. Golovanov, Korolev, 540.
  31. The precise launch mass of the rocket and PS-1 was 272,830 kilograms. See Memoirs of Tikhonravov in Akademik S. P. Korolev, 448.
  32. “Osnovnye rezul’taty puska.”
  33. Poroshkov, “Khronika vazhneishikh sobytii,” 111-112; Boris Chertok, Rockets and People, Vol. II: Creating a Rocket Industry, ed., Asif A. Siddiqi (Washington, DC: NASA, 2006), 386-387.
  34. “Pervyi iskusstvennyi sputnik zemli.”
  35. Memoir of Shabarov in Nachalo kosmicheskoi ery, 64.
  36. Sources differ on the location and personnel involved. Ivanovskii (echoed by Golovanov) refers to Lappo and Gringauz at Site 2 while Semenov refers to Junior Lieutenant V. G. Borisov who was stationed in of the Finnish houses at IP-1. For the latter, see Semenov, “Kak zapuskali pervyi sputnik.”
  37. Golovanov, Korolev, 540.
  38. Ivanovskii, Rakety i kosmos v sssr, 35. Semenov makes no mention of the signal being a recording.
  39. Memoir of Shabarov in Nachalo kosmicheskoi ery, 64.
  40. Ivanovskii, Rakety i kosmos v sssr, 35.
  41. Golovanov, Korolev, 541.
  42. Chertok, Rockets and People, Vol. II, 386-387. The planning document was a letter from Korolev (co-authored with Riabikov, etc.) sent to the Central Committee on September 24, 1957. See Baturin, Sovetskaia kosmicheskaia initsiativa v gosudarstvennykh dokumentakh, 72-74. An internal OKB-1 document suggests the plan was to achieve 223 X 1,450 kilometers.
  43. These data are according to the TASS announcement of October 5. An internal OKB-1 report issued on November 1 states parameters at orbital insertion as 223 X 950 kilometers with an orbital period of 96.2 minutes, but these refer to the core stage of the booster. See “Osnovnye rezul’taty puska”; “Pervyi iskusstvennyi sputnik zemli.”
  44. Golovanov, Korolev, 541.
  45. Nicholas Daniloff, The Kremlin and the Cosmos (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 65-66.
  46. Sergey N. Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2000), 260.
  47. Golovanov, Korolev, 541.
  48. Memoirs of Skuridin in Akademik S. P. Korolev, 457-458.
  49. “Soobschenie TASS o zapuske pervogo iskusstvennogo sputnika zemli,” Pravda, October 5, 1957, 1. For the English news translation, see “Text of Satellite Report,” New York Times, October 5, 1957, 3.
  50. “Sovetskii iskusstvennyi sputnik zemli,” Pravda, October 9, 1957; Memoirs of Skuridin in Akademik S. P. Korolev, 458.
  51. Tikhonravov, “Provozvestnik kosmicheskoi ery.”
  52. Tikhonravov suggests December 1 as the date of decay while official RKK Energiia documents suggest December 2 (and 882 orbits) as the date. See Tikhonravov, “Provozvestnik kosmicheskoi ery”; Semenov, Raketno-Kosmicheskaia Korporatsiia “Energiia”, 91; “Pervyi iskusstvennyi sputnik zemli.”
  53. Memoirs of Kavyzin [Khomiakov] in Akademik S. P. Korolev, 451.
  54. Memoirs of Kavyzin [Khomyakov] in Akademik S. P. Korolev, 451.
  55. Golovanov, Korolev, 544.