First artificial space satellite launched 54 years ago
Oct. 3, 2011
by Mark Ollig

In 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed the Internal Geophysical Year (IGY) to be July 1957 to December 1958.

During the IGY, a series of scientific global activities would be performed.

A technical panel established for the IGY worked on what would be required in order to launch an artificial satellite that could orbit the Earth.

Both the United States and Soviet Union had announced plans to launch Earth-orbiting artificial satellites.

While the US space satellite program (called Vanguard) was an open and public undertaking, the Soviet program was being conducted in secret.

The historic event happened Friday, Oct. 4, 1957.

It began when a Soviet R-7 two-stage rocket (number 8K71PS) was successfully launched near Baikonur, a small town located in the remote Russian region of the Kazakhstan Republic.

The R-7 weighed approximately 267 tons at liftoff.

This rocket was more or less a Russian Soviet ballistic missile without the military warhead attached.

Instead of a warhead, the rocket carried into space a payload called PS-1, better known as Sputnik 1.

Sputnik, meaning “fellow traveler or companion,” orbited the Earth once every 92 minutes at a speed of 18,000 mph from a height of 139 miles.

The Sputnik 1 satellite was a metallic, highly polished 23-inch-diameter orb made of an aluminum-magnesium-titanium combination weighing 184 pounds.

Four spring-loaded, “cat-whisker-looking” whip-like antennas extended both 7.9 and 9.5 ft., from the satellite.

The satellite’s one-watt radio transmitter was powered from two of three on-board silver-zinc batteries. The third battery was used to power Sputnik’s internal temperature and other instrument systems.

In October of 1957, many people became fixated listening to the steady radio signal pattern of “beep-beep-beep-beep . . .”

Those beeps were being transmitted from Sputnik’s antennas at the 20.005 and 40.002 MHz frequency bands.

Sputnik’s radio transmissions were being closely listened to by people from around the world through their radios and televisions.

Sputnik’s radio signals also included encoded information about the satellite’s internal and external temperature and pressure readings, along with the density of the Earth’s ionosphere the radio signals had traveled through.

You can listen to one minute of the actual recorded radio signal beeps from Sputnik 1 at http://tinyurl.com/2u9b49. This link goes to a Wave Sound (.wav) audio format file.

Tracking of Sputnik 1 while in orbit was accomplished by way of the Soviet’s P-30 “Big Mesh” radar, and by the use of ground-based telescopes.

There were also people on the ground that looked up and saw the bright spot of sunlight being reflected off the highly polished Sputnik 1 as it sped over their heads across the night sky.

While Sputnik 1 orbited the Earth, Americans’ emotions ranged from shock and amazement to being downright frightened and distressed.

A number of people worried that instead of just harmless, beeping Soviet satellites orbiting over the United States, Soviet ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads might be attached on the next payload.

I mean, after all, it was 1957, and the US and Soviet Union were in the middle of the Cold War.

For the most part, the Soviet Union had clearly taken the lead in this new “space race” between the two super powers.

First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev viewed Sputnik’s triumph as an unmatched propaganda value for the Soviet space program.

During a news conference Oct. 9, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower, in an attempt to subdue any public hysteria, tried to diminish the importance of Sputnik 1 by saying, “Now, so far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota. I see nothing at this moment, at this stage of development, that is significant in that development as far as security is concerned, except, as I pointed out, it does definitely prove the possession by the Russian scientists of a very powerful thrust in their rocketry, and that is important.”

On the other side of the world, what did the Russian people feel about the launch of Sputnik 1?

Semyon Reznik is a Russian writer and journalist, but Oct. 4, 1957, he was a Russian college student.

Reznik recalled what was being broadcast over Russian radio at the time of Sputnik’s launch and the Russian people’s response.

“The day our satellite Sputnik was launched, a special voice came over the radio to announce it to us . . . .” Reznik repeated the announcement; “Attention. All radio stations of the Soviet Union are broadcasting . . . Our satellite Sputnik is in space.”

Reznik talked about the people’s reaction; “Everyone felt so proud and wondered who did it? No names were named for years.”

Sputnik 1 continued to broadcast beeps until its radio transmitter batteries became exhausted Oct. 26, 1957.

The flight of the first Earth-orbiting satellite came to an end Jan. 4, 1958, when Sputnik 1 re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.

The US launched its first Earth-orbiting satellite, called Explorer 1 Jan. 31, 1958.

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