On October 4, 1957, the world entered the space era, as in the Soviet Union the first ever sputnik was launched.
The design was carried out under the supervision of Sergey Korolev, the outstanding scientist and the head of the Soviet space program. He was entitled to make all decisions, as the country’s authorities wholly trusted his genius and only preferred to be informed of the final results.
Korolev shifted the official launch date from the planned October 6 to October 4, as he learnt that on October 6 in Washington, the report on the sputniks was to be filed. All data about the American launch at hand suggested that it was not to be performed any earlier than the spring of the next year, but to be on the safe side, the Soviet sputnik went into orbit on October 4. The rocket carrier was launched at 22:28 in the night. The first sputnik was shaped as a ball 58 centimeters in diameter and weighed 83.6 kilograms. Though the sputnik – the Russian word meaning “travel companion” – was labeled as simple, it featured a unique design, nothing of the kind ever produced. Inside the sputnik, two transmitters were installed, along with several meters to measure the pressure and temperature inside the sputnik. When the rocket carrier finally left the ground, the scientists were euphoric. Only after the first orbit around the Earth was successfully completed did they think it appropriate to call Khrushchev.
The then-leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev was in Kiev in the middle of a large military exercise. As he watched the Soviet tanks cross the Dnieper River, he received a phone call from Korolev, and his face beamed as he listened to the message. “Korolev just called, he’s the chief designer of our rocket ships,” he told his associates. “But don’t tell anyone – that’s confidential. What I wanted to say, is that tonight, the first sputnik was sent into orbit.” Those who heard the news smiled politely, but, apparently, the entire scale of the event hadn’t hit them yet. When Khrushchev’s assistant turned on the radio, everyone present heard the signals coming from the Sputnik, “Beep-beep-beep…”
The Soviet scientists didn’t entirely understand what a breakthrough they had managed. When the news finally hit the headlines, followed by huge media frenzy, they realized that in fact they had ushered in a space age on Earth. The Russian word “sputnik” entered every foreign language; newspapers worldwide admired the feat of the Soviet people, “Century’s Greatest Sensation”, “Dream of Humankind Comes True”, “Soviets Open Window to Universe”.
In the United States, the news produced an effect similar to that of an explosion. The state officials, who advocated the policy of “brinkmanship”, cared little about the scientific value of the event. What they feared was that now the Soviet Union possessed the multi-step intercontinental ballistic missile, which was immune to their anti-aircraft defense systems. Americans launched their own version of sputnik four months later, A little over eight kilograms in weight and the size of a palm, it was dubbed “an orange” by the American press.
The signals from the soviet sputnik stopped after 22 days because the battery died, while the sputnik itself orbited Earth for three months until it burnt up in the atmosphere.