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60 years of Sputnik: How it transformed the global space industry

Sputnik 1
photo of a Soviet space scientist with Sputnik 1 before the launch. courtesy: History.com

There are historical breakthroughs that drastically transform the world we live in, unfolding a new leaf in the annals of glorious achievements of human civilization, and ushering us into a new epoch — one characterized by pioneering changes, soaring aspirations, invigorated resolve and an unprecedented development that exults, motivates, fills us with awe and heralds groundbreaking future developments.

October 4, 1957, exactly 60 years ago, was one such moment. The world stood still when USSR launched Sputnik 1 (Sputnik in Russian translates to companion), the world’s first artificial satellite, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan.

The launch of the first artificial earth satellite 60 years ago made it possible to explore space, initiated the space age and triggered the fiercely competitive space race between the two superpowers of the world – USA and USSR.

Sputnik – The reliable companion

Sputnik was loaded on R-7 Semyorka, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which served the purpose of a satellite launcher as well.

Sputnik 1 was roughly the size of a beach ball (58 cm in diameter) and it took 98 minutes to orbit the earth in elliptical path. The launch of Sputnik spawned off technological innovations in multiple fields and influenced global politics of the day as well.

Sputnik had a reflective surface and it was also partially visible from earth’s surface. The satellite stayed in the space for 22 days and traveled 43 million miles across 1,440 orbits, before burning down.

A replica of Sputnik can be seen at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, Russia.

How it all began!

In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions decided that July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 would be international Geophysical Year (IGY). In October 1954 it was declared that artificial satellites would be launched during IGY. US tried to launch its Vanguard satellite but it failed to take off from the earth’s surface and the American space program was decisively outmaneuvered by the Soviets.

The success of Sputnik 1, which had 10 times more payload capacity than the Vanguard, shocked and dismayed the western world, busting the conventional narrative of US being the bellwether of technology and scientific innovations in the world and USSR being a backward nation with scant technological progress to boast off.

The political ripples

When the then US president, Dwight D Eisenhower, said that we have to acknowledge that USSR has surpassed the USA and the “free world” in space technology, there was gloom in the US public.

Premature obituaries of the demise of US as a world power and its eventual relegation to the status of a peripheral second rate power were penned and US public did feel that they have been left far behind the USSR.

For the USSR also, the success of Sputnik was a means to demonstrate to the world the vitality, viability and robustness of their system as well as their expertise in space technology.

Sputnik became a shining beacon to highlight the preponderance of the Soviet communist system over the American capitalist system.

The official Soviet narrative said that everyone could see how the new socialist society has turned the boldest dream of mankind into a reality.

What contributed to the grave public shock in the US was also the fact that the R-7 ICBM had demonstrated its capability to carry nuclear warheads. And US, which was immune from European disturbances, suddenly felt both militarily vulnerable and its technological edge and prestige being eclipsed by the Soviets.

Foundation of NASA and series of Russian firsts

The negative public reactions, prevailing atmosphere of gloom and the successful launch of Sputnik 2 (which carried a dog named Laika to outer space), barely a month after the launch of Sputnik 1, made it imperative for the Americans to comprehensively recalibrate their space programs, provide them with a new direction and focus on space program with a renewed vigor if the Soviets were to be outsmarted and trounced.  The US Defense Department funded another satellite project after the failure of Vanguard and as a response to the Soviets.

On January 1, 1958, Explorer 1, the first artificial US satellite was launched and it discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the earth. Six months later, NASA and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) were founded to prepare the US for the mounting threat of Soviet domination of space technology and steer ahead of the Soviets.

Explorer 1, the first US satellite, launched on 1st January 1958

Till the mid-1960s the USSR had many feathers in its cap in the field of space exploration — first artificial satellite in space, first satellite carrying a living being to space, first man in space (Yuri Gagarin in 1961) and the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963)

The tables, however, seemed to turn when Neil Armstrong became the first man to land on the surface of moon in 1969.

End of space race and beginning of collaboration

After 2 decades of competition, the Soviets and the Americans decided to bury the hatchet in the field of space exploration, so that they both could benefit from each other’s technological expertise and work on projects together.

In 1975, the US and the USSR collaborated in the Apollo-Soyuz project, and it marked the end of Soviet-American rivalry in space and started mutual cooperation and assistance in projects.

Apollo-Soyuz mission satellites

60 years and around 1400 satellites later, that have been sent to space, after Sputnik blazed the trail in space exploration, we have come a long way, but we owe a lot of it to Sputnik and the dexterous Soviet engineers and scientists.

Today, satellites are used in everything from remote sensing to weather forecasting to navigation to reconnaissance. And the journey of this sterling progress began with an orb shaped satellite.