History changed on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik. The world's first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball, about 23 inches diameter and weighing less than 190 pounds. It took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the Space Age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R. space race.
Like the Soviet Union, the United States was planning to launch a satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year. Caught off-guard, the American public felt echoes of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor less than 16 years before. Americans feared that the Sovietswhom they believed were behind the U.S. technologically after the devastation of World War IIcould launch ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons at the United States.
Audio: Telemetry from Sputnik
Image Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi
Sputnik’s launch led the U.S. government to focus and consolidate space exploration programs in different agencies, and on Jan. 31, 1958, the Army launched Explorer I. This satellite carried a small scientific payload that discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth, later named after principal investigator James Van Allen. That summer, Congress and President Eisenhower created NASA, which came into being Oct. 1.
Sputnik’s launch created a rivalry that lasted decades and sent Americans to the moon, but which ultimately gave way to cooperation and collaboration. Sixty years later, Americans and Russians work alongside each other and astronauts from many other countries aboard the International Space Station.
Image Credit: NASA
Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age, by former NASA chief historian Roger Launius
Sputnik and the Creation of NASA, by Dr. Eilene Galloway, who drafted NASA’s founding legislation (from 2007)