After the end of World War II, both the United States and the USSR had entered the Cold War, beginning in 1947. A political and economic battle brought nations at odds. Both focused on the development of advanced military weaponry, including the creation of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technologies. Inspired by the explosive effort of the Germans, the V-2 rocket, the possibilities of nuclear warhead missiles became a growing concern and goal for both countries. However, In the early 1950s, all eyes were fixed on the skies because of the role rockets could play in opening up a new field of exploration: space.
After a period of global diversity during the war, in 1952 the member of the National Academy of Sciences Lloyd Berker proposed to the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) a series of global geophysical activities. The project aimed to conduct a series of collaborative studies to better understand the Earth and its surroundings over a specified period of time. From July 1957 to December 1958, this window of scientific exploration was known as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). From glaciation to gravity, more than seventy countries participated in projects that would lead to the understanding of plate tectonics and the polar regions and the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt.
In July 1955, United States President Dwight Eisenhower announced the country’s goal to launch an artificial satellite as part of the IGY, stating that: ‘the most important outcome of the International Geophysical Year is the demonstration of the ability to work of the peoples of all nations together in harmony for the common good. I hope this can become common practice in other fields of human endeavor. ‘ Seeing this announcement as a challenge, the Soviet Union followed suit, announcing its plans to accomplish the same feat a month later.
World War II had seen the last rocket weapons. However, none capable of launching a satellite. For that, it would first need to overcome the gravitational pull of the Earth.
Sergei Korolev, in search of something seemingly unattainable
Sergei Korolev, chief designer and recognized as a leading expert in aeronautical engineering, was a natural candidate to undertake the task of creating the first Soviet ICBM. At the helm of OKB-1, an aeronautical design bureau, Korolev and a team of the best engineers in the country, including aeronautical engineer and designer Mikhail Tikhonravov, began to work to achieve the seemingly unattainable. Drawing inspiration from the German V-2, Korolev developed the R-7 rocket, a 267-ton liquid-fueled missile capable of generating around 396.9 tonnes of thrust. From various versions, the R-7 promised to be the first rocket to see space.
In January 1956, Korolev’s vision for the creation of a satellite had been approved by the Soviet Presidium of the Central Committee. Originally built under the codename Object D, this new form of technology was limited to a weight of between 1,000 and 1,400 kilograms to allow it to travel aboard the R-7 rocket, sitting on its head. Various versions of Object D were designed, equipped with the latest in observing technologies. It housed receivers and transmitters to transmit measurements and data to stations on Earth. Aviation technologies were incorporated to study areas such as the gravitational field, its shape, the ionosphere, and the Earth’s space radiation … However, due to the claim of the IGY, organized by the United States, the planned completion and launch of Object D exceeded the window of opportunity, thus it was considered a simpler spherical alternative.
Prosteishy sputnik – the simplest satellite – became the substitute satellite for the Soviets. Simplified in size, weight and equipment, the Sputnik satellite, also known as PS, was designed to be completed and launched in late 1957. Weighing only 83.6 kilograms and 59 centimeters in diameter, the first was manufactured by fusing two hemispheres. made of aluminum only two millimeters thick. Polished to perfection for easy detection, the futuristic sphere extended two long antennae, finishing its now unmistakable appearance. This simplistic design allowed Soviet engineers to create a functional satellite within the IGY deadline. On October 4, 1957, history was made at a Soviet Union test facility in the Republic of Kazakhstan with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. In association with the R-7 rocket, the elliptical sphere launched into the atmosphere and escaped from the skies into space.
Korolev and his team waited anxiously, their ears pointed at the radio receiver. After a few moments, simple beeps sounded over the radio, cutting off the tension that filled the air. Signaling the satellite’s success, the beeps lasted for about two minutes before the signal was lost as Sputnik 1 continued its journey around Earth. When those first beeps came over the radio waves, the Soviet Union had secured its place as a world leader in space exploration. Greeted with thunderous applause from the Soviet Union, these simple beeps signified not only the safe arrival of the satellite into space, but the position of the orbiting object. Traveling at about 30,000 kilometers per hour, it took Sputnik 96 minutes to orbit Earth. The odyssey lasted three months before the satellite burned out upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
Satellite mania begins
Sputnik 1 satellite mania swept the USSR. Commemorative stamps and even toys from the satellite trip were made to celebrate its success. This adventure in space had awakened the world to the power of the Soviet Union, which now saw itself as the rightful pioneer of space. Korolev went so far as to affirm that: ‘the Soviet Union has become the coast of the universe’.
The once unthinkable feat of reaching for the stars was now a reality. However, the achievement was not seen by everyone as a testimony to humanity, but as a threat to their freedom. The announcement of Sputnik 1’s brief survival in space was initially greeted with congratulations in the United States from President Eisenhower. However, the goodwill messages soon turned into frenzied panic at the potential military threat to their nation, commonly known as the Sputnik crisis. Although it is believed that President Eisenhower and the US government were aware of the Sputnik 1 satellite prior to its launch, the impact it would have on the world was vastly underestimated. What struck the American people was panic. Fear that the Soviet Union had armed space. Fear that the United States had been left behind as the world technology authority they were once considered to be. Such a small and insignificant satellite (especially compared to modern creations) had sent a world power into utter disbelief and fueled the fire of its space program. And so the starting pistol of the space race had officially been fired.
NASA is born
The United States achieved its adventure in space in January 1958 with the launch of Explorer I. However, again the achievement was overshadowed by the success of Sputnik 2, which took a dog into space only a few months after the launch of the first. rocket. The success of the Sputnik program, which initially sparked outrage among Americans, served as a catalyst for the birth of one of the most respected and advanced organizations in the world. Driven by pride to regain its technological authority, US officials created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (later renamed DARPA), and in October 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established to promote the work of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, founded in 1915.
The two nations fought for the next several years, with the Soviet Union claiming the world record for putting the first man and the first woman in space. Although it was born on the battlefield, the creation of Sputnik 1 was a feat not only of rocket engineering, but also of scientific research. It unleashed an era of discovery and exploration like no other. Possibly the mascot of the space race, Sputnik will always be seen as a beacon of possibility.