Launch of Sputnik I 

Soviet Union #3758 pictures Sputnik I.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first man-made object in space, which sparked the start of the Space Race with the United States.

Plans for the satellite began back in December 1954, when Soviet rocket scientist Sergei Korolev proposed the creation of an artificial satellite, urging that it was an important step in the development of rocket technology.  Less than a year later, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that the US would launch an artificial satellite during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. In response, the Soviet government quickly approved work to move forward on the satellite.

Item #M11189 honors Sputnik III, which the Soviets initially planned as their first satellite.

The satellite, named Object D, was built by members of several institutions: the USSR Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Defence Industry, the Ministry of Radiotechnology Industry, the Ministry of Ship Building Industry, the Ministry of Machine Building, and the Ministry of Defense.  Eventually, the design of the satellite was simplified because they feared it couldn’t be done in time to launch before the American satellite. The Soviets had their first rocket test launch in May 1957, but it failed.  Two others failed, but the fourth in August was a success.

Russia #6083a from a joint issue with the US for International Space Year.

Sputnik I was successfully launched on October 4, 1957.  Though it did have some issues along its journey, it achieved its major goal of getting into space.  Russian for satellite or co-traveler, Sputnik I was about the size of a beach ball and had four flimsy metal antennae that resembled whiskers trailing behind it as it flew overhead.

The Soviets had announced that night that they would be launching their satellite and told the US and other countries to watch for it in the sky.  They also asked radio amateurs and commercial radio stations to record the sound of the satellite as it passed.

Soviet Union #2083//2267 includes a stamp honoring the launch of Sputnik I.

Sputnik pushed the world into a new era – the Space Age – as the US and the Soviet Union competed for supremacy in the race for outer space.  The Sputnik launching had other consequences as well – the knowledge of a Soviet satellite flying freely over US soil during the Cold War prompted what President Dwight Eisenhower called the “Sputnik Crisis.”

It may seem strange now – that a sphere two feet in diameter could prompt such frenzy.  But the tensions in the years following the use of the first atomic bombs had both nations in a high state of paranoia.  And the “R-7” rocket that launched Sputnik I into space was originally intended to carry nuclear warheads.

Item #M12235 – Mint sheet honoring Sputnik I and II.

The successful launch of Sputnik was a blow to the American public, who had believed the US was the world’s technological superpower.  The US government had been aware of the work on Sputnik and began developing its own satellite, Explorer I, which launched on January 31, 1958.  They also began investing more in scientific programs to help the US pull ahead in the Space Race.

Item #M12278 – Mint sheet honoring Sputnik I and Sergei Korolev.

Click here to watch the launch of Sputnik I and here to listen to the satellite.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. Neat links to hear and see the launch of Sputnik 1. I barely remember this; people were scared…it was a different time; everything was so primitive compared to today. I wish I could go back. Americans were naive and it just felt better. The age of innocence; what have we become? Thank you Mystic; whoever is doing all this…you guys are doing great.

    1. “Americans were naive and just felt better…” ; not if those Americans didn’t have their civil rights. You seriously want to return to the 1950’s?

        1. It is a very human thing to experience nostalgia about earlier times. The odd thing is that few people ever feel that the present day is the best of times. Only later do we have those feelings. The Woody Allen film, “Midnight in Paris,” explores this theme in a humorous way.

        2. I suppose that remark represents cutting edge criticism by you. He said: “…people were scared…I wish I could go back.” Do you subscribe to ignorance is bliss? When you were a child, you had childish thoughts. Nostalgia is very often seen through rose-colored glasses. Also, don’t tell me what to do as I have absolutely no intention of paying attention to your request.

  2. My father took me out to the country at night and pointed out Sputnik blinking across the night sky among the stars. It was fascinating to my 11 yo eyes. A few years later Dad wold be designing solar arrays for weather satellites and camera arrays to take pictures of the dark, never seen side of the moon. Look out Mars here we come. We should of had a moon base by now.

    1. I recall well the launch of Sputnik ! and Sputnik II (with poor dog). We couldn’t seem to get a satellite off the ground. Rockets blew up on the launch pad. But then JFK gave the big push to the space program. As far as the future goes, I believe that there is no point in putting humans in the dangers of space, and there area a lot out there. Spend the money on the robotic probes and make them more multi-dimensional and we’ll learn a much without loss or harm to human lives.

  3. I remember the launching of Sputnik. I was a sophomore in high school, and several of our teachers lamented the supposed fact that the U.S. was slipping behind the Soviet Union in science and technology. We were told that we had to buckle down and study harder. There followed a national consternation and soul searching about American education…we needed more science, more mathematics, “why Johnny can’t read”, etc. I also remember earlier in that decade, that we had to practice “duck and cover’ drills in case of nuclear attack. Interesting memories.

  4. After the launch of Sputnik, in my 11th grade speech class there was a time when we debated the question: “Is the Russian System of Education Better Than That of the United States?” We had to take both sides of the question. I don’t remember what the consensus was, but it made us think and wonder what this scientific breakthrough might mean for the future of America.

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