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Satellite Tracking: All About Sputnik 1

By Sid Nair

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet satellite named PS-1, popularly known as Sputnik, launched into space, becoming the first human-made device to orbit Earth. The satellite flew at a speed of 18,000 miles per hour and orbited Earth in a little more than an hour and a half. It traveled a total of 43 million miles in 1,440 orbits before it fell back to Earth in January of 1958. Its mission was to transmit signals to Earth for the purpose of tracking and to prove to the world that it was in orbit. Its successful launch had a profound effect upon the world and marked the birth of the space age.

Sputnik-1's Background

Sputnik was the result of decades of research into rocket design as well as wartime innovations and Cold War rivalries. From Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Sergei Korolev of Russia to Hermann Oberth and Wernher von Braun of Germany and Robert Goddard of the United States, scientists had been working on the science behind rockets and space flight long before Sputnik's creation. During World War II, the Germans developed the V-2 rocket, which achieved suborbital flight in 1942 and set the stage for orbital launches that occurred long after the war was over.

Korolev, a Soviet prison camp survivor, was in charge of reverse-engineering von Braun's V-2 rocket for Russia. His career was jump-started by the Cold War, which began after World War II ended, and he was set to work building what would one day be the R-7 rocket. Originally designed to carry nuclear weapons, its first real mission would be to launch a satellite into orbit. The United States, meanwhile, sought to launch a satellite during the International Geophysical Year in 1957. This prompted the Soviet Union to authorize the development of a satellite for launch as soon as the R-7 design proved successful. The R-7's second successful launch came in September of 1957, and another satellite, later to be known as Sputnik-3, was slated for launch into orbit, but it encountered technical issues. Eager to beat America into space, the Russians chose a smaller version, Sputnik-1, which launched successfully on Oct. 4.

  • What Was Sputnik One? Learn about Sputnik-1, its purpose, and the background of its creation on this page. The article also talks about Sputnik's purpose and the impact that it had on the world.
  • The Soviet Union's Traveler in Space: This site provides visitors with the historical background for the Sputnik-1 mission. It provides a timeline from the development of the R-7 rocket that carried it into space to the launch of Sputnik-1 and onward to 1997's launch of Sputnik 40.
  • Russia Launched Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957: Business Insider discusses in this article how Russia decided to launch Sputnik-1 after realizing the plan for an "Object D" launch was more difficult to carry out than they expected. It goes on to talk about how Sputnik sparked a new level of competition between America and the USSR.
  • Sputnik and the Birth of the Space Age: Read about the history of space flight research leading up to Sputnik-1's launch in this article. It covers the scientists who helped launch the space age, the events that led up to Russia acquiring the technology for Sputnik and the R-7 rocket that launched it, and the world's reaction.
  • The Launch of Sputnik, 1957: The United States Department of State outlines information about the history of Sputnik-1 here. This page includes Sputnik's historical roots dating back to space research during and after World War II and the legacy that its launch left upon the world.
  • Korolev, the R-7, and Sputnik: Sergei Korolev was the chief scientist behind the Sputnik program. Learn about his work and the relationship between the R-7 rocket and Sputnik-1 here.

Sputnik's Specifications

PS-1 stood for "prosteyshiy sputnik," which means "elementary traveling companion" in English. Sputnik-1 was a sphere less than 23 inches in diameter, about the size of a beach ball. It weighed just less than 184 pounds and was equipped with four antennae that swept behind it like whiskers. The satellite's hull was made of an alloy comprised of aluminum, magnesium, and titanium. Sputnik carried a radio to transmit a signal that was designed to be heard by amateur radio operators on Earth, and it carried a battery rated to last two weeks, but it ultimately provided power for 22 days. There was also a fan inside the sphere to cool it down if it became too hot.

  • Sputnik and the Space Age at 60: The Russians were the first to put a satellite into space. This page by the Smithsonian Institute is dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the launch of this spacecraft.
  • The Sputnik Program: Readers will find a brief overview of the Soviet Union's Sputnik-1 program at Northern Virginia Community College's website.
  • Russian Miscellany: Sputnik: Sputnik-1 meant the start of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. This article on Macalester College's website talks about the size and weight of the satellite and its impact on the world.
  • Design of the First Artificial Satellite of the Earth: Find a diagram of the Sputnik-1 satellite and a brief explanation of its history here.
  • How Sputnik-1 Launched the Space Age: This article by Cosmos is about Sputnik-1's design and the details of its launch. It talks about Sputnik's transmissions to Earth and its impact upon both America and the Soviet Union.
  • Things You Didn't Know About Sputnik: View this US News & World Report article for ten facts about Sputnik-1 that include its size, how fast it orbited the Earth, and more.
  • Sputnik: Details: NASA talks about Sputnik-1's design and its mission on this page.

Sputnik's Legacy

The successful launch of Sputnik presented the world with far-reaching consequences. It immediately sparked fear in America that the USSR might have or soon develop the ability to strike America with nuclear missiles. It was also a blow to America's national pride, as the Russians had started the space age and initially beaten the United States in the space race. As a result of Sputnik-1, however, the United States created two organizations, which were the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). It also sparked a significant increase in government funding of scientific research, and American schools developed a greater interest in and focus on science. The National Defense Education Act was passed by Congress in 1958 to provide low-interest college loans for students pursuing degrees related to mathematics and science. The ensuing space race ultimately resulted in America being the first to put humans on the moon.

  • Soviet Fires Satellite Into Space: The University of Houston chronicles the launch of Sputnik on their Digital History Website and explains its effects on the Cold War.
  • The Scientific Legacy of Sputnik: Space.com discusses how the world reacted to the launch of Sputnik-1 in this article.
  • Oct. 4: This Day in History: The History Channel chronicles the day Sputnik-1 launched on this date in 1957.
  • Sputnik's Impact on America: Click this link to read about how Sputnik-1's launch affected the United States and the secret space programs that America had in the works at the same time.
  • Introduction: Sputnik's Legacy: New Scientist magazine discusses in this article how Sputnik-1 ushered in the space age and competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • USSR Launches Sputnik: National Geographic presents a short page about the launch of Sputnik-1. It gives a description of the satellite and its contents as well as how the world reacted to its short-lived existence.
  • How Sputnik Changed America: CBS talks about the effects that the Sputnik-1 mission had on the United States in this article.