Sputnik: A Brief History of the Dawn of the Space Race

| | October 6, 2023

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union became the first nation to reach space. The Sputnik 1, so named for the Russian word used conversely for both “companion in travel” and “satellite,” became the first man-made object to be placed in low earth orbit.[1] The ignition of the Soviet missile that carried Sputnik into the heavens was much more than a mere exothermic reaction, however. It was to ignite the fear, imagination, and wonder of the world.

People began to wonder: ‘How far could humanity journey into the last frontier? Would this great technological feat come crashing down upon humankind’s own head in the form of a warhead? What could possibly be the outcomes of this historic moment politically?’ The start of the space race did not present itself in just one stream of modern current, but in many. Politics, culture, science, history—the very fabric of the human tapestry itself—would be forever shaped by the dawn of the space age. Understanding the ripple effect made by this shiny, 180-pound aluminum sphere, dropped front-and-center in the world pond, is vitally pertinent in comprehending the vibrant history of the mid-20th century.[2]

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But how did the Soviets do it? Prior to the Second World War, Russia was very much behind technologically and industrially. To advance to a level of rocket-science competence in so short a time would require drastic reformation and reinvention of societal structure. Enter Joseph Stalin. The effect of the dictator’s rise to power in 1928 was twofold: the country was updated industrially at an unbelievable rate, but it meant massive human cost, ushering in a time of unmatched hardship and tyranny for the people living under Soviet rule.[3] Three ‘Five Year Plans,’ the likes of which employed state planning on an extraordinary scale, guided Stalin’s reforms.[4]These reforms allowed the nation to modernize industrially to the point that it was more than capable of developing various forms of rocketry. The pressures and events of the Second World War, however, would also play a massive role in the development of the technologies that would be precursor to the Soviet feat.

It was the work of Wernher von Braun, and his brother Magnus, that played the biggest role in shaping rocket technologies during the years of the Second World War.[5] Wartime has always seemed to have a curious effect on the sciences and technology: nations, when placed under the gun of another power, almost always seek to make their own guns much, much bigger. That was surely the case with the German V2 rocket program. The long-range missiles offered promise of being effective artillery, capable of hitting targets remotely with both precision and destructive power, while leaving their operators safe out of harm’s way. Yet even the von Braun’s, engrossed as they were in the efforts of war making, saw great potential outside of military application for their deadly inventions. As Wernher von Braun is rumored to have once soberly remarked to his team: “We must not forget that this is only the beginning of a new age, the age of rocket flight. The sad truth, as you can see for yourselves, is that new inventions are of no interest to anyone until someone devises a way to use them as weapons.”[6] Little could von Braun have anticipated that, in the relatively short number of years to come, rocket technology would be used for purposes far more noble and inspiring than that of just armaments.

Undoubtedly, the V2 program provided, at the very least, a foundation for the Soviet space effort. But the majority of the work of the von Braun brothers ultimately played into the hands of the United States, thanks to Magnus von Braun’s timely surrender to American forces after the fall of the Third Reich.[7] Wernher von Braun would ultimately go on to direct the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, and played a significant role in the American Apollo space program.[8]The V2 program had left its mark, though, and similar missile projects cropped up in the Soviet Union and United Kingdom, in addition to the one assisted by von Braun in the United States.[9]Unlike the Americans, however, the Soviets had to rely on the ingenuity of their own engineers to develop the necessary technologies.[10]

The Soviet engineering team was moved to a secret facility in 1946, where they made considerable headway on a number of rocket projects, including the R-7, a powerful two-stage missile.[11] But simply achieving military goals would not be the end of the story. One of the engineers, Mikhail Tikhoravov, along with a small group of other engineers, began feeding their fancies of space travel by developing parallel manned and unmanned missions.[12] After impressing Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the USSR at the time, with his designs, Soviet scientist Sergei Korolyov obtained permission to use one of the R-7s as a launch vehicle for a satellite.[13]Near the midnight hour of October 4th, an R-7 blasted off from a missile site in Kazakhstan, lofting into the heavens its single, rotund cargo.[14]

The following morning, headlines began to circulate globally as the Soviet news agency, TASS, outlined the achievement of their country’s scientists.[15] The effect of the news was immense; it permeated nearly every pocket of society in some way. The general public was enthralled; the satellite could be viewed through binoculars as it flew overhead, and radio operators the world over could track Sputnik’s persistent ‘bleeps’ from its onboard transmitters.[16] Western scientists were both fascinated and impressed by the Soviet achievement; the weight and size of the satellite were especially points of praise.[17] Western leaders, both politically and militarily, however, did not share such enthusiasms.

Four days after the launch, President Eisenhower met in secret with a number of generals, governors, and scientists to assess the political and military ramifications of the Soviet probe.[18]The meeting ended up touching on one of the major tensions between two competing agencies in the American portion of the space race: that of the Army and the Navy.[19] Apparently, the Army would have been capable of launching a satellite months prior to the Soviets, using the Redstone missile system, but was not permitted to, due to the priority given to the Navy’s Vanguard program.[20] Yet it was already too late to point fingers. Wernher von Braun, who was in charge of the Army’s Redstone program at the time, had solemnly warned three years earlier that, “It would be a blow to U.S. prestige if we did not do it first.”[21] The Americans had not done it first, and indeed, they certainly felt its sting across every societal stratum.

The launch of the Sputnik 1 was not, however, entirely unexpected. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had committed to launching satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year, a global science conference.[22] Both nations would have been aware of the fact that, at some point, one of the two would be the first to put a man-made object in orbit. This fact would have played well into the hands of the Eisenhower government, as it was possible to spin the Sputnik event in such a way as to downplay its significance. A news release from the British Broadcasting Company conveyed well the relative public coolness that prevailed in the Western attitude:

“There have already been calls for an immediate review of US defences, given the implications of the technological leap ahead by a political enemy. But Dr Blagonravov said no-one had anything to fear from the Soviet satellite programme. ‘It will keep everyone too busy watching the instruments to think about anything else,’ he said. President Eisenhower has been informed of the Russian success. But he said the news would not lead the US to accelerate its own satellite programme. The first US launch is expected next month.”[23]

Most Americans were not even troubled by the event.[24] A poll found that a solid sixty percent of people living in Washington and Chicago expected the United States to be the next nation to make its mark in the new race for space.[25] It seemed as though the Eisenhower administration had, at the very least, the average American citizen convinced that there was nothing to worry about.

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The first mark the U.S. would make, though, was not a pretty one. The initial attempt at launching the Vanguard satellite, the project developed by the Navy, ended in a catastrophic explosion, utterly destroying the rocket and engulfing the launch platform in flames.[26] Additionally, the embarrassing incident, which was aptly referred to as ‘flopnik,’ was already trailing the launch of a second successful Soviet probe: Sputnik 2.[27]

The second Sputnik probe was the first to carry a living creature into the cosmos: a small dog named Layka.[28] The shock of yet another satellite hoisted before America’s first prompted president Eisenhower to finally address the nation directly on the issue. Gone was the public coolness of the prior Sputnik event. In his decidedly lengthy television and radio address, the president discussed the implications of “science in national security,” comparing the ups and downs of the United States’ technological capabilities in lieu of its highly successful political enemy.[29] America had clearly been rattled. It seemed as though the Soviets had managed to shake the political cage enough that the American populace was actually becoming worried over what their adversary might be capable of.

Diplomacy continued to be tense over the course of the years that spanned the space age. In the back of many minds was the seemingly constant threat of an intercontinental rocket attack. Nuclear arsenals finally had a means of being remotely deployed, and it did not take much more than the push of a button to have a missile en-route to a pre-programmed target. Yet the dicey international relations that characterized the Cold War era were not the sole legacy of Sputnik and its initiation of the space race. Scientific endeavour and discovery prospered like never before, and a global space-inspired culture flourished.

Many modern technologies are the direct results of advancements made in space-related fields. Nitinol, the specialized titanium/nickel alloy used in dentistry, was originally employed as material for antennas used on spacecraft and probes.[30]Anti-fog technology, such as that used in optics like ski goggles, was adapted from the technology necessary to keep astronaut helmets from fogging up.[31] Simpler technologies, that are more often-than-not taken for granted, such as shock-proof electronics, thermal fabrics, moisture-wicking clothing, and sports apparel lined with cushioning foam, are also the results of technology developed originally for use in space.[32] While Sputnik itself did not factor greatly into any one of these technologies, the event itself was the catalyst for the space race. The space race, as a by-product, did produce the majority of this technology, therefore making Sputnik an indirect, but integral, contributor.

Global culture was also heavily influenced by space exploration in the 20th century. Films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey reflected a growing interest in what the future might hold for humankind in space.[33] The United States government took large steps in increasing awareness and interest in post-secondary education, including offering low-interest student loans to possible students, in an attempt to channel some of the best and brightest to the fields of science, math, and engineering.[34] This led to great numbers of students dreaming big of future careers in aeronautics and space exploration. Toy companies around the world produced all kinds of space inspired toys, dolls, and action figures.[35] McDonalds even offered space exploration themed toys in their happy meals, towards the end of the space race in 1991, as part of a program to encourage children in America to learn about science and space.[36]Comic books produced before and during the time of the launch of Sputnik told fantastic stories of the exploration of the cosmos and celestial bodies, the likes of which were sometimes strikingly similar to real, future missions that had not yet happened.[37] Even fashion began to take cues from things like astronaut attire. In 1964, French fashion designer André Courrèges revealed his “space age” collection, the style of which was quickly picked up by a number of other designers and popularized.[38] Music, too, picked up on space influences. Artists began to write music that reflected the concerns and musings of scientists.[39] Some, like David Bowie, donned a new space persona entirely, reflecting both the fashion and culture of the music industry at the time.[40] While Sputnik was not the only contributor to the space craze of 20th century culture, it was itself a representation of a space culture that already existed and was quickly growing. In many ways, the first satellite was the proving point that not all these dreams of fanciful space adventures were, in fact, mere fiction. It helped to flesh out and propagate a wonder and a passion to explore beyond this Earth that still lingers even today.

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Sputnik was, perhaps, one of the most shaping events of the latter half of the 20th century. A single rocket and probe escalated and brought near the potential of a devastating nuclear war, furthered science, enabled the development of incredible new technologies, redefined much of modern culture, and inspired a generation of space enthusiasts. The beginning of the space age spanned nearly all aspects of human living on Earth; no part of modern society remained unaffected. This instrument of human handiwork, relatively un-complex in nature and design, had the capacity to drastically affect history and human thinking in a way that the politicians, press, and celebrities never could have done themselves.

Works Cited

            [1] Alexei Kojevnikov, “Sputnik,” in Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, ed. by John Merriman and Jay Winter (Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006), 2428.

            [2] Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Fellow Traveler: Fifty years ago this month, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite. Shocked into action, the U.S. ramped up its space program—and its science education,”Natural History, October 2007.

            [3] Anthony Esler, The Western World, A Narrative History: Pre-history to the Present, 2nded. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 633-635.

            [4] Ibid, 633.

            [5] Claudia Flavell-While, “Rocket Man,”TCE: The Chemical Engineer 858/859 (December 2012): 47.

            [6] Ibid, 48.

            [7] Ibid.

            [8] Ibid.

            [9] Alexei Kojevnikov, “Sputnik,” Europe Since 1914, 2428.

            [10] Ibid.

            [11] Ibid, 2428-2429

            [12] Ibid, 2429.

            [13] Ibid.

            [14] Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Fellow Traveler,”Natural History, October 2007.

            [15] “1957: Sputnik Satellite Blasts Into Space,” On This Day, 4 Oct. 1957 [document on-line]; available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/low/dates/stories/october/4/newsid_2685000/2685115.stm; Internet; accessed 8 April 2015.

            [16] Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Fellow Traveler,”Natural History, October 2007.

            [17] “1957: Sputnik Blasts Into Space,” On This Day, 4. Oct. 1957.

            [18] National Archives, Memorandum of Conference with the President, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, 1957, 1. [document on-line]; available from http://www.archives.gov/global-pages/larger-image.html?i=/education/lessons/sputnik-memo/images/memo-page-1-l.gif&c=/education/lessons/sputnik-memo/images/memo-page-1.caption.html; Internet; accessed 8 April 2015.

            [19] “Teaching with Documents: Memorandum of a Conference with President Eisenhower after Sputnik,” National Archives, [document on-line]; available from http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/sputnik-memo/; Internet; accessed 8 April 2015.

            [20] Ibid.

            [21] Ibid.

            [22] “1957: Sputnik Blasts Into Space,” On This Day, 4. Oct. 1957.

            [23] Ibid.

            [24] Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Fellow Traveler,”Natural History, October 2007.

            [25] Ibid.

            [26] WordsInHistory, “Vanguard Explosion Cape Canaveral Florida 1957.” YouTube. (accessed April 9, 2015).

            [27] Alexei Kojevnikov, “Sputnik,” Europe Since 1914, 2429.

            [28] Ibid.

            [29] Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Radio and Television Address to the American People on Science in National Security,” 7 Nov. 1957 [document on-line by John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters]; The American Presidency Project; available from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=10946&st=&st1=; Internet; accessed 9 April 2015.

            [30] Carole Stott, Space Exploration, Eyewitness Books (New York, NY: Dorling Kinderseley, 2004), 57.

            [31] Ibid, 56.

            [32] Ibid, 57.

            [33] Ibid, 55.

            [34] Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Fellow Traveler,”Natural History, October 2007.

            [35] Carole Stott, Space Exploration, 9.

            [36] Ibid, 54.

            [37] Ibid, 9.

            [38] Ibid, 56.

            [39] Ibid, 9.

            [40] Ibid.

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