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The Space Age Begins

Soviet Union

In the spring of 1957 Russian delegates at meetings of the International Geophysical Year committees announced plans to launch Russia's first satellite on or about September 17, 1957, the 100th birthday of Russian rocket pioneer K.E. Ziolkovsky. Whether a launch was actually attempted on that date is unknown, as no announcements came from Russia at that time. A successful launch was definitely made the following month, however.

Sputnik I was launched into orbit by a T-2 intermediate range ballistic missile on October 4. The spherical satellite was 22.8 inches in diameter, weighed 184.3 pounds, and carried a radio transmitter. Its orbit was elliptical, with a perigee of 155.3 miles and an apogee of 559.2 miles. The orbit passed over points bounded by 65 north and 65 south latitude. The satellite broadcast on two wave lengths (40.002 and 20.005 megacycles) continuously until its batteries were drained, which happened 22 days after launch, during its 326th circuit around the Earth; it fell out of orbit and burned up in the atmosphere sometime in January 1958.

This diagram of Sputnik I first appeared in a Russian magazine.
diagram of Sputnik I

BBC engineers at a receiving station in Tatsfield, England, monitor radio signals from Sputnik.
the BBC tracks Sputnik

Dr. Fred L. Whipple, of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, explains how Sputnik's coded radio signals transmit information from space to Russian scientists.
Fred Whipple

On November 3 Russia sent Sputnik II into orbit. This satellite's orbit was far more elliptical than the first, with a perigee of 145 miles and apogee of slightly over a thousand miles. In addition to scientific instruments Sputnik II carried an 11-pound dog named Laika, who stayed alive and in good health for at least 80 hours. The battery power of the satellite ran out soon after, and Laika was automatically and painlessly euthanized. Total weight of Sputnik II -- instruments, dog, animal capsule, batteries, transmitter, and third-stage rocket (which stayed attached to the satellite) -- was 1,117.6 pounds.

Laika in the compartment in which she was sent into space. The hermetically sealed capsule was equipped with an air-conditioning unit and an oxygen supply. She was fed intravenously during the time she lived in space.

Photograph of Sputnik II as it passed over San Jose, California, on November 6, 1957. The picture of the satellite trail (long white streak) was made at a 5-second exposure; the background was taken by reopening the shutter an additional 3 minutes. The Earth's rotation caused the apparent movement of the stars (short white streaks).
photograph of Sputnik II in orbit

United States

Project Farside was carried out by the United States Air Force in October. The Farside rocket was a four-stage assembly of solid fuel rockets. The first stage was a cluster of four Recruit rockets, the second was a single Recruit, the third a cluster of four Atmosphere Sounding Projectile (ASP) rockets, and the fourth a single ASP. The whole assembly was lifted to an altitude of over 80,000 feet by a balloon, at which point the rockets were to fire vertically. Six tests were carried out near Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, none of which were complete successes. In one the balloon was apparently shaken by tubulence just at the critical moment and the rocket did not take off vertically. In another several stages apparently caught fire at the same time. In two of the attempts all of the rockets functioned properly but the transmitter failed.

The first attempt to fire a Vanguard satellite ended in disaster. The instrumented satellite weighed 21.5 pounds, but the plan was to fire several small "test satellites" weighing 6.5 pounds each first. These test satellites contained only batteries and a transmitter. The first test shot was scheduled for the early morning hours of December 5, but the "zero hour" was postponed several times and then finally called off late in the evening. After two more postponements on December 6, the firing switch was finally thrown. The rocket rose about two feet before losing thrust and falling down to the ground. The fuel supply of both the first and second stages burst into flame. The third stage did not catch fire, however, and the test satellite survived with negligible damage.

Technicians check the Vanguard rocket moments before its unsuccessful launch.
Vanguard rocket moments before launch

Right: The Vanguard rocket burning at the Cape Canaveral, Florida, launching site.
Vanguard burning at launch site

Left: A full-scale model of the instrumented 21.5-pound Vanguard satellite.
model of the Vanguard satellite

See Also

In the Year 1957
International Geophysical Year

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This page was last updated on 12/06/2018.