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Sputnik is Launched


The interest in space exploration took flight in the late 1920s.  The initial steps of space research began with the investigation of solid fuel rockets for use in the military.  By the end of World War II, research turned its focus to finding liquid fuel rockets that had the capacity to withstand the low temperature and pressure in space.  The discoveries of World War II became the catalyst for scientific advances within space travel.  Thus, the Space Race began between the Soviet Union and the United States to be the dominating force in the final frontier.

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On 4 October 1957, the Soviets accelerated far beyond the rest of the scientific world with the launching of Sputnik.   Up until the time of launch, the Soviets were able to keep the Sputnik series a secret from the majority of the world.  Sputnik I, meaning “fellow traveler” in Russian, was a sphere with a diameter of 2 feet weighing 184 pounds.  Although this primitive satellite did not have much instrumentation, it contained two radio transmitters.  Collectively, these transmitters gave off a beep that allowed Soviets - and the world – to track the orbit of this satellite. The second phase of the Sputnik series followed only a month after the launch of Sputnik I.  

On 3 November 1957, Sputnik II was put into orbit.  This second satellite had significant technological improvements.  It weighed 1,120 pounds and carried the first organic life into space – a Russian dog named “Laika”.  This phase was mockingly nicknamed “Muttnik” by cynical members of other countries.   Sputnik II was propelled off of the earth using an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).  The world feared that Sputnik II had been launched with a super-fuel or a nuclear rocket (Levine 1994).  Unfortunately, this satellite overheated when it failed to detach from its booster, and Laika became the first casualty to space exploration.  Laika and her sacrifice for space exploration motivated other countries to go beyond the Soviets and begin a competition for manned space flight. 

Almost a year lapsed before the Soviets completed their Sputnik series.  Sputnik III was launched on 18 September 1958, gaining the respect of the United States for its vast size and technological improvements.  It weighed almost 3,000 pounds and the basic structure was similar to that of Sputnik I.  It was used purely for discovery, as opposed to Sputnik II's quest for life-supporting capabilities.   Thus, through the Sputnik series, the Soviet Union was able to jump ahead of the competition and usher the world into the Space Age.

 The launch of the Sputnik series and the Space Age that the Soviet Union brought in had a number of ramifications on the world around it.  Since the Soviets were able to keep Sputnik relatively quiet, the Western countries were shocked when the satellite began its orbit.  The major concern with Sputnik was not necessarily the fact that the Soviets were the first in space, but the means in which they got there.  At that time, the world was in a race to create the ICBM, or the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.  Once the soviets launched Sputnik with this, the United States and Europe reacted.  Within the United States, the primary reaction was fear.  Americans feared two things about this new advancement.   First off, if the Soviets were able to produce ICBMs in mass quantities, they would be able to attack the rest of the world without any retaliation.  The second fear was that America, which considered itself technologically superior, had given up its superiority to the Soviet Union (Levine 1994).  Senator and future President L .B. Johnson considered this a large problem, since “the control of space means the control of the world…that is the ultimate position: the position of total control over earth that lies in outer space” (Heppenheimer 126).   These two fears caused the United States to pick up the pace in their space program in order to gain a foothold in technological dominance.  More funding was requested for research and over 2.5 billion dollars was requested to improve the defenses of America.  As John Foster Dulles speculated, “Sputnik [proved] a good thing, a salutary shock jolting Americans out of their complacency and reenergize American society “(Levine 72)

In Europe, the reaction towards Sputnik was much stronger.  Europeans saw through the launching of Sputnik that the Soviet Union had overtaken America with its technological superiority.  Thus, many European countries tried to separate themselves from the United States.  America was thought to have “helped [their] enemies by not getting an ICBM” (Levine 65).  However, even though European counties were not as “pro-American”, the NATO alliance still remained relatively unshaken by the major Soviet advances. 

 Through the Sputnik series, the Soviet Union was able to accelerate beyond the United States and NATO, becoming the technologically dominant society of this time.  Although it shook up the people of the USA and Europe, they did not give up the race.  Thus, a fire was rekindled within the race for space, pushing the nations of the world onward to further embark on the Space Age.


Collins, Martin J. Space Race.  Pomegranate Communications, Inc.: San Francisco 1999

Heppenheimer, T.A. A History of Space Flight Countdown.  John Wiley and Sons Inc.: New York. 1997.  

Levine, Alan J. The Missile and the Space Race.  Praeger Publishers: London. 1994

Reeves, Robert.  The Superpower Super Race.  Plenum Press: New York.  1994.

Thomas, Shirley.  Men of Space.  Chilton Books: New York.  1962. Vol. I, IV, V.

Edited by: Max Kholodenko
Researched by: Laura Green
Written by: Andy Beckstrom
March 26, 2000

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