Sputnik 50 years later: Why was it first; what is its significance to space professionals?

DAYTON, Ohio -- Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio -- This replica of Sputnik I rests in an exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force's Missile and Space Gallery. Sputnik launched Oct. 4, 1957, mobilizing an American drive for space superiority that continues today. (U.S. Air Force photo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Sputnik became "the space shot heard 'round the world" when it launched from the Soviet Union Oct. 4, 1957. The launch ignited not just a Soviet R-7 ICBM but eventually a race to the Moon, and it set the Cold War rivals at odds in a new domain. 

The Soviets had a number of space firsts in the early days of the space age. A dog named Laika launched aboard Sputnik 2 in November, becoming the first living creature in space. Luna 3 was the first spacecraft to go near and past the moon in October 1959. In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman into space in June 1963. Soviets conducted the first spacewalk in 1965 and launched the first permanently crewed space station in April 1971. 

But why is Sputnik the first object in the satellite catalog and not Explorer, the first U.S. satellite? 

There are four major reasons. One had nothing to do with satellite technology but everything to do with nuclear weapons. The Soviets saw American nuclear weapons as a threat to their existence and strove to catch up as fast as they could with both U.S. bomb development and delivery capability. 

However, because they had not yet achieved the same level in thermonuclear weapon miniaturization, the Soviet bomb was much larger than the U.S. version. The United States, with its smaller warhead designs, could base nuclear-tipped missiles in North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, which were close enough to hit the Soviet landmass without requiring a missile capable of traveling intercontinental distances. And because the USSR did not have client states near the United States in the late 1950s, they needed a bigger missile capable of reaching North America from the steppes of Asia. That is, they needed an ICBM, and an ICBM can be quickly converted into a satellite launching vehicle. 

A second reason Sputnik was first is that the Soviet leadership placed a greater emphasis on being first. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev knew what the West thought of Soviet science and technology and looked for ways to show that the USSR was on par with or even ahead of the West. One of the ways to prove their capability to the world and to their own people was to achieve scientific and technological firsts. 

The Soviets launched Sputnik as part of the International Geophysical Year, a worldwide scientific program to learn more about the Earth. One of the IGY's stated goals was to study the Earth from space. Although Sputnik merely beeped on 20- and 40-MHz radio frequencies as it orbited, tracking the satellite helped engineers and scientists learn a lot about orbits, how to calculate them, and what effect the Earth exerted on satellites. But the Soviets also sold Sputnik to the world community as an example of "socialist technological superiority." 

A third reason Sputnik was first was the Eisenhower Administration's choice of the Vanguard satellite program as the American contribution to the IGY. President Dwight Eisenhower wanted a satellite that was divorced from American military programs like Gen. Bernard Schriever's Thor and Atlas nuclear missiles and Army Gen. Bruce Medaris' Jupiter intermediate range missile program, which was run by rocketeer Wernher von Braun. 

Vanguard was a scientific satellite, run by a Johns Hopkins University lab and planned for launch aboard a small Viking rocket. Vanguard's launch vehicle exploded on the launch pad, making Explorer the first U.S. satellite; but even if the Vanguard launch had been successful, it would have launched after Sputnik. 

Finally, President Eisenhower was also concerned about spying from space, something that we take for granted today. But the insular Soviet Union kept many secrets that the United States needed to decipher in order to properly plan military forces. Although the U-2 program did reveal some secrets hidden away in the USSR, many questions remained; and, because aircraft overflights without permission of national governments are illegal under international law, President Eisenhower risked World War III. 

In discussions with the National Security Council, President Eisenhower and his advisers felt that if the USSR launched the first satellite, and if the U.S. did not protest its overflight of U.S. territory, the principle of freedom of overflight in space could be established in international law. The United States could then fly reconnaissance satellites over the USSR without fear of protest. 

However, President Eisenhower's decision not to press to be the first in space would come back to haunt him. In the aftermath of Sputnik, the president tried to reassure the American public that the R-7 ICBM that pushed Sputnik into orbit was not a threat to the United States. But not everyone accepted that line of thinking. 

By the time John Kennedy was the Democratic nominee for president in 1960, Eisenhower's political foes had created a strategic missile gap between the U.S. and USSR, which they alleged the Soviets were leading, and a "space race" between the two superpowers that eventually ended on the moon in 1969. 

So, what is the significance of Sputnik's launch for military space professionals? 

Sputnik was first into space and firsts are important just for being first -- no other object is 00001 in the satellite catalog. Second, Sputnik inspired the US to look at space technology as important and achievable, not too expensive or too risky -- a belief that resulted in little funding for space technologies before Sputnik's 1957 launch. 

A report produced for the Air Force in 1946 suggested many missions for a "world-circling spaceship," including communications and reconnaissance, but the report was ignored. Said one space pioneer, "We were not allowed to say the word 'space.' Many believed space was 'a non-useful type of endeavor for the military.' We couldn't say 'space' but we still worked on space programs." 

After Sputnik, General Schriever recalled, "When Sputnik went up ... everybody was saying, 'Why ... can't you go faster? Who's in charge here?' " Subsequently, all of his programs received immediate boosts in funding, which set the United States on course towards being the unequalled space power that it is today. 

Third, Sputnik inspired a generation of people to work in the engineering and science fields, spurring on the space program to even greater heights, and eventually, the Moon.
Finally, by learning about Sputnik and the times that surrounded its launch, we can learn much about our own profession. Even though it was little more than a small metal ball that orbited the Earth transmitting "beep," Sputnik set off a spectacular chain of events that continues today. 

Editor's Note: Lt. Col. David Arnold holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the history of technology from Auburn University, Ala., and a master's degree in history from Colorado State University.