A replica of Sputnik I, the first satellite into outer space (NASA)
When a Russian rocket lofted Sputnik 1 into orbit on October 4, 1957, the worldwide reaction was a mixture of awe and apprehension. The Space Age—and the Space Race—had begun. American scientists had known the launch was coming because their Soviet counterparts had told them to expect it. But to an American public that had become accustomed to our country’s growing global primacy, the orbiting of Sputnik 1 was a traumatic wake-up call.
The launch came during the depths of the Cold War, when Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House and America's space interests were almost entirely focused on building rockets powerful enough to deliver nuclear warheads across intercontinental distances. NASA did not yet exist, and the notion of traveling into orbit—let alone journeying to the moon and beyond—seemed little more than science fiction.
Yet by then, visionaries had not merely dreamed of space flight but had laid the foundation for making it a reality. The mathematical and engineering breakthroughs achieved by Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy (a Russian), Hermann Oberth (a German), and Robert Goddard (an American) proved that rocketing away from Earth was entirely possible.
Kelly Beatty, award-winning senior editor for Sky & Telescope magazine, explores the events leading up to Sputnik's launch exactly 60 years ago, the political fallout that led to America's response (Explorer 1), the formation of NASA, and the crucial but largely forgotten role that everyday citizens played in tracking the first satellites.
Space planner Sergei Korolëv built Sputnik, distinctive for its futuristic, highly reflective spherical shape. When he saw that a worker had not polished a backup sphere, he shouted at the man, “This ball will be exhibited in museums!” He was right: A replica is on display at the Air and Space Museum.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)