In the 1950s space exploration really started to heat up as the Cold War between the USA and USSR began to gather speed. The desire to send humanity into the cosmos was not only an opportunity to showcase the technological might of each nation but also a chance to take mankind where it had never been before. Up until 1957 America had thought itself the leader in rocket and space technology, but the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957 took the world by surprise as the USSR became the first nation to ever send an artificial object into orbit. But was Sputnik 1 really that impressive, or was it simply a microwave-sized piece of space junk?
Let’s not beat around the bush; this thing didn’t look great. Launched atop a Russian R-7 rocket, Sputnik 1 was really just a concept of what could be achieved rather than a technical marvel. In fact, the spacecraft didn’t really possess any worthwhile instruments to perform any science in orbit, with the sole scientific data from the mission coming from the interactions of Sputnik 1’s radio transmissions with the atmosphere.
Sputnik 1’s origins were actually as a larger 1,000kg spacecraft dubbed “Object D” that would later become Sputnik 3. However, to ensure they reached space as quickly as possible the Russian space agency designed to go with the stripped down Sputnik 1, the launch of which would also coincide with the International Geophysical Year.
The tiny vehicle was about twice the size of a basketball at just 585mm in diameter, and weighed only 84kg, about the average weight of a human being. It was thrown into an elliptical orbit with an average height above Earth’s surface of 900 km (560 miles), during which it completed an orbit every 98 minutes. The mission certainly wasn’t anything fancy (it did not have its own propulsion so there were no manoeuvres in space here), but it managed to complete its primary task of showing the Americans who was the current leader in space.
Sputnik 1 travelled at about 18,000 mph (29,000 kph) and continued to transmit signals to Earth for 22 days after its launch, which is pretty impressive considering the rudimentary nature of the spacecraft. Due to its small size it wasn’t pulled back into the atmosphere by drag until three months later, when it burned up on re-entry on 4 January 1958. The longevity of its transmissions were thanks in part to the surprisingly robust power supply, three silver-zinc batteries that made up more than half the weight of Sputnik 1. They were expected to die in two weeks but managed to last for eight days longer.
The most complex piece of equipment on Sputnik 1 was actually its temperature regulation system. Inside the spacecraft was a fan and two thermal switches which kept the satellite between the operating temperatures of 20 °C (68 °F) and 36 °C (96 °F) while in orbit. The vehicle was also filled with dry nitrogen, which kept the pressure inside fairly stable at 1.3 atm. It was the success of this regulation system that kept Sputnik 1 going for longer than anticipated, and it certainly got the job done.
It’s pretty clear that Sputnik 1 wasn’t designed to win any beauty or technology contests. The Soviet Union simply wanted to get something into space before the Americans, even if it couldn’t really do much when it got there. However, that being said, the launch of Sputnik 1 led directory to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which you might know better as NASA, on 1 October 1958. It’s safe to say without NASA, which is now undoubtedly the world leader in space exploration (although several agencies around the world might have something to say about that in a few years), we’d have far less of an understanding of the universe around us.
So, Sputnik 1’s greatest achievement isn’t what it accomplished during its mission but rather what it spawned afterwards, namely a rapid and exciting era of space exploration that we are still living in today. For that reason we can’t help but admire this little ball of wires, a spacecraft uninspired in its design but unsurpassed in its influence on the space age.
+ First spacecraft in orbit
+ Dawned the space age
+ Completed its goals
– Lack of scientific value