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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Sputnik I launched, October 4, 1957

"The Country of October is the Birthplace of Cosmonautics", Soviet poster

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching the world's first satellite into space. Given that the USSR had only 12 years prior emerged from the utter devastation of World War II, Sputnik I was a remarkable achievement of Soviet science and socialism.

Just a month later on November 3, 1957, Sputnik II was launched.

In December 1957 USSR Magazine published the following account of the two historic voyages that ushered in the Space Age.


THE age of cosmic exploration was announced on October 4, 1957, with this terse statement: “The first satellite was successfully launched by the Soviet Union.” Sealed into the 23-inch brightly polished aluminum alloy sphere traveling in an elliptical orbit around the earth were more than instruments to record celestial data. The first earth satellite carried the substance of an old dream - interplanetary flight. Man was no longer earth -bound. He had made the first long step toward the stars.

Sputnik I was shot into an orbit extending from north to south. The altitude of this elliptical orbit ranged approximately from 170 to 560 miles above the earth. If the many revolutions of Sputnik were reproduced graphically, it would appear as though the earth were covered by a web of lines, because the earth itself rotates from east to west within its orbit. Every 96 minutes the satellite made a revolution of the globe.

The hermetically sealed sphere carried two radio transmitters and power sources. To the outer surface were attached four long aerials, eight to ten feet long. For three weeks the radio transmitters emitted the characteristic beep beep signals heard everywhere on the globe. Sensitive elements altered the strength of the signals and the ratio between their length and pauses to transmit changes taking place on Sputnik. When received, they were recorded for subsequent analysis.

To catapult the 184 -pound ball required a three-stage rocket of extra ordinary power. Sputnik I was placed in the nose of the rocket and sealed behind a protective cone. The carrier rocket with Sputnik I inside was launched vertically. Shortly after take-off, the rocket, following design, was arranged to gradually deviate from the vertical. Just previous to Sputnik's alignment in its orbit, at a height of several hundred miles, the rocket moved parallel to the earth at a speed of 26,000 feet a second.

When the rocket engine burned out, the protective cone separated from it and the satellite then moved independently in free flight. Both the carrier rocket and the protective cone accompanied Sputnik to revolve around the earth at approximately the same altitude. But the

rocket moved faster than Sputnik and the distance between them gradually increased each day.

Sputnik's orbit enabled it to be observed from all continents in a variety of latitudes. It would have been easier to launch a satellite on an orbit closer to the equatorial plane, using the speed of the earth's rotation on its axis to give extra impetus to the rocket, but it would have considerably scaled down the area from which such a satellite could be seen.

Observers in all continents tracked Sputnik and the carrier rocket. In the Soviet Union numerous scientific centers followed them by telescope, radar and direction finders and photographed them in flight. Members of radio clubs and thousands of amateur astronomers reported on Sputnik regularly. All data were collected and systematized to define the orbit and to chart the satellite's passage.

The development of Sputnik I drew on the ultimate in scientific and engineering knowledge. The problems that had to be solved were quite new in principle. The greatest difficulty was in designing a carrier rocket. Powerful engines capable of working under extremes of heat had to be devised. A precise and efficient system of automatic control had to be developed to align the satellite in its orbit.

That Sputnik I reached its orbit testifies to the accuracy of scientists in plotting the speed of the rocket's flight and its direction of movement. Any variation from the projected speed or departure from the direction of movement by as little as one degree would have meant failure.

On November 3, before the data gathered from the flight of Sputnik I had been fully evaluated, a second artificial earth satellite was launched in the Soviet Union.

Sputnik II contained numerous instruments for studying solar radiation in the short- wave ultraviolet and X- ray regions of the spectrum in addition to instruments for measuring cosmic rays, temperature and pressure. To help determine the effect of cosmic space on life processes, the satellite also carried an airtight container with a dog, an air-conditioning system, food for the animal and instruments for recording and transmitting to the earth the scientific data obtained. The equipment of the second satellite included two radio transmitters and the necessary power sources. The total weight of Sputnik II was 1,120 pounds, more than six times that of Sputnik I.

The maximum distance of the orbit of Sputnik II from the earth's surface was approximately 932 miles. Traveling at a speed of 26,240 feet a second, it circled the globe in 102 minutes. The creation of the earth's first artificial satellites was a natural link in the chain of achievements in science and engineering in the Soviet Union. To recall Russia forty years ago is to gauge the magnitude of this achievement. It telescopes the tremendous changes which have taken place in the way of life of an entire nation.

Education was a key which unlocked the door to a veritable treasure house of talent that had lain dormant. Two generations have produced an army of engineers and metallurgists, chemists and electronic engineers, physicists and mathematicians capable of working out all the intricate problems connected with launching an artificial earth satellite, and a highly developed industry ready to produce the most complicated apparatus their thinking could conceive.

The satellites are not only a symbol of the achievements of one country, they are symbolic of the cooperation of the scientists of all countries to give man greater control of the forces of nature. As such, they are a favorable portend for the future.

During the course of the International Geophysical Year many other satellites will be rocketed into space to provide more material for science. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of such space laboratories for relaying information on temperature, pressure, density of atmosphere and other data never before obtained by scientists, information that will help solve many of the unknowns of our earth and the heavens.

We live at the bottom of an ocean of air that envelops the earth. This ocean of the earth’s air lets through only isolated and narrow sectors of electromagnetic oscillations emitted by the heavenly bodies. Science has always dreamed of an observatory outside the atmosphere from which to study cosmic rays born in remote galaxies, ultraviolet rays, X- ray solar radiation, radio emissions. Artificial satellites will provide us with such observatories to investigate the physics of the upper atmosphere.

Satellites move within a field of terrestrial gravitation. In its turn this field is determined by the distribution of masses inside the earth and in the earth’s crust. By studying the satellites' motion we can draw vitally important conclusions about the structural composition of the earth whose crust we live on.

At an altitude several hundred miles above the earth the atmosphere is extremely rarefied. Nevertheless, the air has some resistance and therefore influences the satellites' motion. Study of this motion will give us data now unknown about the character of the top layers of our atmosphere. It will provide us with inestimably valuable knowledge on electrostatic fields of the atmosphere, on celestial microparticles, meteors and a host of other problems of both theoretical and practical bearing.

By far the most dramatic of horizons which the satellites open up, one which has stirred the imagination of the world — interplanetary travel—Sputnik I and II have moved out of the realm of fantasy into the laboratory of the scientist and engineer. The next step is in clear outline - a rocket to overcome terrestrial gravitation, to steer a course for the moon.



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