The Sputnik Shock

Dawn of the Space Age
by Gregory R. Todd

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the western world by announcing the first successful launch of an artificial satellite orbiting the earth – Sputnik 1.

The 1950’s were politically difficult times for the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions declared the time lasting from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 as the International Geophysical Year due to high solar activity in that period. Also they were calling for artificial satellites during the year in order to map Earth’s surface.

Both countries took these news seriously and were aware of the importance to take a leading position concerning space technology. Nonetheless, it was the time of the cold war. The actual plans for the Sputnik 1 mission began in 1954. It was clear that an artificial satellite must be constructed in order to succeed in further research on rockets and to make interplanetary communication possible for the future. The first drafts and tasks concerning the satellite were completed in July 1956 and only one year later, Sputnik was about to launch with the help of an R-7 rocket, an advanced version of the V-2 built by the Germans during World War II.

The launch of Sputnik strongly changed the foreign affairs between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Space Race has officially started and led to America approving a huge funding to push the country’s technical development. It was feared that the Soviets would now be able to launch missiles carrying nuclear weapons from Europe to America. But the Soviet Union could succeed again in November when they launched Sputnik 2, which was also special due to the fact, that it carried the first living animal on a spacecraft – a dog named Laika.

The Unites States were able to finally launch Explorer I in 1958, carrying a small scientific payload and helping to prove the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth, named after James van Allen. This helped the U.S. not to lose grip on the Race, which was to continue until the mid-1970’s.

However, the launch of Sputnik 1 put the American citizens and politicians into shock, due to the Soviet’s surprising and technically astonishing achievement. During its mission, Sputnik was next to its important political purpose also able perform some scientific tasks. For 3 months the satellite was orbiting around the Earth and travelled 60 million km before burning up and reentering Earth’s atmosphere in January 1958.

Did you know that the so called ‘Sputnik Shock’ also was responsible for the development of the internet? President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to establish the ARPA research funding agency to promote scientific progress of the US to catch up the soviet’s advance in space. As a side effect, ARPA also funded the development of reliable data communication networks, which later should become the internet.

At yovisto you may enjoy a video by Dr. James Oberg talking about the ‘Russian Space Program‘.

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