Sputnik 1, Earth’s first artificial satellite, was launched by the Soviet Union 60 years ago, today. While the structure and function of the satellite seem rudimentary compared to today’s technology, Sputnik’s launch was a groundbreaking step in space exploration which sparked the space race between The United States and The USSR.
Sputnik 1: An Embarrassment For The United States
As Sky & Telescope notes, while Sputnik 1’s successful launch was a triumph for the Russians, it was a source of shame for the U.S. In 1955, President Eisenhower had declared that there would be an American satellite in space during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an 18-month period of space research. In 1957, U.S. scientists predicted that their satellite would launch later that year. But before that could happen, Sputnik was already orbiting Earth.
The first points of the race to space had been won by the Soviet Union, not the United States, and they didn’t stop there. About a month later, the USSR shocked the world again when they deployed the world’s first space traveler, a dog named Laika, into orbit on Sputnik 2.
America’s first response to Sputnik 1 and 2’s success failed miserably when the Vanguard satellite malfunctioned on live television in December. That embarrassment led to the creation of a second satellite program led by German aerospace engineer and space architect, Wernher von Braun. On January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 became the first U.S. Satellite sent into orbit. Soon another American satellite followed, Vanguard 1, and it’s still in space today.
60 Yrs Ago Today: Soviet Union put Sputnik, world's first artificial satellite, into Earth orbit. Replica on display at our Museum in DC. pic.twitter.com/AF8EEYDX0X
— SmithsonianAirSpace (@airandspace) October 4, 2017
Though it wasn’t much of a satellite by today’s standards, Sputnik laid the groundwork for our understanding of space and the potential of satellite technology. It showed the world what was possible. In 1961, just a couple of years after the launch of Sputnik 1, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, flying his solo Vostok 1 spacecraft on a 108-minute flight.
In 2017, satellites are a part of human life that we take for granted. As Space.com notes, most major nations including the U.S, Russia, and China, have satellites orbiting the earth. Today, our phone calls, live broadcasts, and weather predictions are all facilitated by satellite technology. Also, as the technology continues to improve we can expect that number of satellites in space to grow exponentially as time passes.
So, thank you, Sputnik 1! Happy Birthday!
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[Featured Image by NASA]