Thu, Oct 05, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Sputnik launch 60 years ago opened the space era


The launch of Sputnik 60 years ago opened the space era and became a major triumph for the Soviet Union, showcasing its military might and technological prowess. It also stunned the rest of the world.

Details of the development and the launch of the first artificial satellite were hidden behind the veil of secrecy that surrounded the Soviet space program and only became known decades later.

Amid a tense Cold War arms race with the US, the Soviet Union focused its efforts on building the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a hydrogen warhead to the US. The R-7 missile Semyorka was built by a team led by Sergei Korolyov, and tests of the rocket began in 1957.

Korolyov, a visionary scientist and a shrewd manager, pressed the reluctant military brass to use one of the first R-7s to put a satellite in orbit.

He warned Soviet leaders that the US was also developing a satellite and won the Kremlin’s permission for the launch.

While there already was a project for a full-fledged scientific satellite, Korolyov ordered his team of engineers to design a primitive orbiter to save time and beat the US into space. The craft, which was built in only a few months, was named PS-1, for prosteishiy sputnik — the simplest satellite.

The satellite, weighing less than 84kg and slightly larger than a basketball, was a pressurized sphere of polished aluminum alloy with two radio transmitters and four antennae.

An earlier satellite project envisaged a cone-shape vehicle, but Korolyov opted for the sphere.

“The Earth is a sphere and its first satellite also must have a spherical shape,” he was quoted as saying.

While the rest of the world was stunned by the Soviet accomplishment, the Kremlin’s leadership seemed to be slow to grasp the scope of the event.

The first official Soviet report of Sputnik’s launch was brief and buried deep inside the pages of Pravda, the Soviet Communist Party’s daily newspaper.

Only two days after the launch did it come out with a banner headline and quotes of the foreign accolades.

Sputnik contained a radio transmitter, broadcasting a distinctive “beep-beep-beep” sound.

Pravda published a description of Sputnik’s orbit to help people watch it pass.

However, it did not mention that the light seen moving across the night sky was the spent booster rocket’s second stage, which was in about the same orbit as the satellite. The tiny orbiter itself was invisible to the naked eye.

Sputnik orbited Earth for three months before burning up in the atmosphere.

Thrilled by the global furor caused by Sputnik’s launch, the Kremlin immediately ordered Korolyov to launch a new satellite to mark the Nov. 7 anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. His team succeeded in building a spacecraft in less than a month, and on Nov. 3 launched Sputnik 2, which weighed about 508kg.

It carried the world’s first passenger, a dog named Laika. While the dog died of the heat soon after the launch, the flight proved that a living being could survive in space.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union made another giant leap ahead of the US when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

The Soviet lead in space prompted the US to pour money into research and technology.

In 1969, the US won the race to land the first man on the moon, while the Soviet program collapsed in a series of booster rocket explosions.

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