Sputnik I, Artificial Satellite. The first man made object to orbit the Earth. The original Sputnik was a landmark event in that it was both an important first as a technological achievement, and for what it inspired.
Sputnik I, the first man made satellite to orbit the Earth was launched on October 4. 1957 by the Soviet Union (USSR). This is not only a milestone in human space flight, but also the inaugurating event of the “Space Race” between the United states and the USSR. Alarmed that the Soviet ability to put a satellite in orbit might indicate a superior capability to build rockets capable of delivering nuclear warheads the United States launched several new programs aimed at catching or outpacing Russian scientific developments. Among other programs, the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA is the direct result of the success of Sputnik.
By later standards Sputnik was not all that impressive. The satellite was 58 cm (approximately two feet) in diameter and weighed slightly less than 184 pounds. It carried two radio transmitters, and sent a series of beeps back to Earth. It was visible in the night sky for most of the 6 months that it remained in orbit, and was a huge media event in the early days of television.
Later Sputnik missions would be more ambitious with one carrying a dog into orbit and sending back information on its vital signs before eventually putting it to sleep by remote control. This was of course an experiment leading up to the initial Soviet triumph of putting the first astronaut (Cosmonaut), Yuri Gagarin, into orbit.
Before Sputnik one the U.S. Naval Research Center’s Vanguard program had been planning to put a small satellite into orbit. Sputnik, as a technological achievement caught everybody’s attention, and the U.S scrambled to equal the achievement. Wehrner von Braun and a team at the Redstone Arsenal Army Base quickly put together and launched Explorer I (January 31, 1958). It carried scientific equipment that made discoveries of the Earth’s magnetic radiation belts. These were named the Van Allen belts after a member of the Explorer development team.
Sputnik intensified Cold War fears, and increased interest in Civil Defense programs, raised government spending on scientific and military programs to new levels, created NASA, and had far reaching impacts upon how Americans perceived their world and the Soviets. It became a point of national pride to exceed Russian successes. This lead directly to John F. Kennedy’s bold announcement of America’s intention to put a man on the Moon, and hence the Apollo program. October 4, 1957 truly is a landmark in the history of space travel, both for the Sputnik launch itself, and the things it inspired.