The USSR rocketed to the lead in the Cold War's "Space Race" with the launch of Sputnik, a basketball-sized satellite that became the first manmade object to orbit the Earth.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
On October 4, 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. The satellite, an 85-kilogram (187-pound) metal sphere the size of a basketball, was launched on a huge rocket and orbited Earth at 29,000 kilometers per hour (18,000 miles per hour) for three months. When it finally fell out of orbit in January 1958, Sputnik had traveled 70 million kilometers (43.5 million miles) around the planet. The only cargo onboard Sputnik was a low-power radio transmitter, which broadcast a beeping noise at regular intervals. This beeping could be heard by radio listeners around the world.
The launch of the first Sputnik signaled the opening salvo in another phase of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Sergei Korolev founded and led the Soviet space effort. He headed the design of the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Soviet R-7. Korolev also oversaw the R-7 rocket’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite.
The design of the R-7 was based on Nazi Germany’s V2 rocket, a weapon used during World War II. As the war with Germany was ending, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for access to V2 technology and those who designed it. While most of the V2 design team and its lead, Wernher von Braun, defected to the United States, the Soviets secured some V2 parts and designs. The Soviets also had a head start with the pioneering rocket work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
A year after the launch of Sputnik, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), formally launching the "Space Race" between the United States and the Soviet Union. This competition in technological development would lead to the Moon landing, space shuttle, and International Space Station, which still orbits Earth today.
object launched into orbit.
to transmit signals, especially for radio or television media.
goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.
satellite in low-Earth orbit that houses several astronauts for months at a time.
(National Aeronautics and Space Administration) the U.S. space agency, whose mission statement is "To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind."
to move in a circular pattern around a more massive object.
large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.
wireless transmission based on electromagnetic waves.
device that moves through the atmosphere by release of expanding gas.
(1922-1991) large northern Eurasian nation that had a communist government. Also called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR.
vehicle used to transport astronauts and instruments to and from Earth.