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The Sputnik Trail

by das monde Thu Oct 4th, 2007 at 08:05:49 AM EST

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first successful launch of a man-made object into the space. The first satellite - Sputnik 1 - circled the Earth for 3 months, 98 minutes per orbit, and was sending the famous "beep-beep-beep" signals for 22 days. When will the glorious times of space race be back?

The anniversary is not causing much shock and awe as the original event did - the media is not seeking much educational role. But interesting facts about the first launch emerged last week. It turns out that the Sputnik was a very spontaneous success, rather than a well-planned program of disciplined "soviets".

The start of the space age. Is it over now? -- Colman


Soviet officials and scientists were no less surprised by Sputnik's launch as Americans. The US had promissed first instrumented satellites in the space for the International Year of Geophysics (July 1957-December 1958) two years in advance, with the USSR promtly making an identical though unspecific promise. The satellites were supposed to measure the effect of maximal Solar activity on Earth's magnetic field. Participants of the special geophysics conference were invited to the Soviet embassy in Washington on the evening of October 4, 1957. The scientists were expecting to hear first details of the Soviet programme, while the Sputnik was already making the second circle around the Earth. Of course, they got bigger news than bargained. Soviet scientists were accepting congratulations perplexed as well. Their spokesman Anatoli Blagonravov was stressing that there is nothing much to the 83.8 kg and 58 cm diameter Sputnik but a thermometer, a radio transmitter, and a big battery. The guests were still wondering whether the weight is not 10 times smaller. The New York Times was very impressed next morning, while Pravda was not even arrogant.

Boris Chertok, one of the founders of the Soviet space programme, told last week more about the first launch project than he was allowed previously. His name, and that of Sergei Korolyov, were a state secret.

Chertok and his veteran colleagues disclosed that Sputnik was born out of other Soviet programme: the development of a rocket capable of striking the US with a hydrogen bomb. Because warhead weight was undetermined, its R-7 ballistic missiles were built with much thrust to spare. The warhead project hit a snag when the test launch destroyed a fake warhead, and a new fake had to be made. There were two R-7 rockets remaining, which could be tested in the meantime. Korolyov saw a chance - why test empty rockets, when they could be tried for a space launch?! But no artificial sattelite was made yet - the Academy of Science was late with preparing instumentation. Korolyov simply arranged production of a simplest sattelite - the Americans could have taken the same decision. (Americans had two rocket projects - the scientific Vanguard, and the top secret military Atlas. They had a good chance if they would have used Atlas "creatively". The Soviet R-7 rocket was not a certainty then - seven of the first eight launches were unsuccessful.)

Korolyov's team build and polished the "Prosteishiy Sputnik" (The Simplest Satellite) in 3 months. The launch was first scheduled for 6 October, but Korolyov cancelled some last-minute tests and moved the launch forward by two days, fearing that the US might be planning a launch on October 5th (for the same conference, presumably). The Soviet leaders were delighted, especially after the shock reaction of the Western Media. The simple Sputnik was worth more than a hydrogen bomb.

Immediately after the launch, Korolyov called Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to report the success. Khrushchev's son, Sergei, who was alongside his father at the moment, recalled that they listened to the satellite's beep-beep and went to bed.

The second sattelite was ordered for the beginning of November, the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. There was little point to launch an empty ball again. They decided to put a dog inside - Korolyov was improvising the construction again. A stray dog Laika was launched, even if Sputnik 2 was not designed to be recoverable. She died in a few hours due to thermal shock, though it was announced for years that she stayed alive for a week.

But Soviets frustrated Americans for several years with ongoing space successes. Yet, they lost the big race to the moon - Soviet leaders did not match Kennedy's vision, and the death of Korolyov in 1966 was a big blow.

[My main reference in English is this article, republished under various headlines. I found more details in Russian and (indirectly) in German.]

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Ok, own up: who remembers this launch personally?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Oct 4th, 2007 at 08:07:16 AM EST
Nope. I remember not being allowed to stay up to watch the moon landings. But Sputnik was before my time.

It's interesting the way that the Soviet successes have been disappeared. The Soviets won every milestone except manned moon landings, but I think most people believe now that the US was the first in space.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Oct 4th, 2007 at 08:20:40 AM EST
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me. I was very young but for some reason I do remember it. Probably beccause my father was saying something like, "dirty commie b*#@ards.":)
by BJ Lange (langebj@gmail.com) on Thu Oct 4th, 2007 at 10:02:55 AM EST
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I do.

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 03:15:26 AM EST
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Great diary!

There's a very elaborate report on this in the dead tree version of the Spiegel, worth getting for those who speak German and are interested. Aside of the Soviet space program happening more or less by accident, the American space program developed largely as a reaction to the Soviets. If Korolyov had not used this window, the US would likely have launched the first satellite and might not have felt pushed to go to the moon. The world might be very different.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Thu Oct 4th, 2007 at 08:29:36 AM EST
Oh yes..... I was only 8 years old. But I was fascinated by that beep...

In 1957 there was no TV (except for the rich), no CD or DVD,(the LP-album  just started to arrive) no handheld calculaters, the first affordable transistor-radio's just came available......computers were huge machines stored in secret places....

But that Sputnik beep...they let us hear it thousands of times over the radio...

The excitement about the event was enormous: imagine: the Russians had something flying over our heads that was beeping! That was really frightening, something to be afraid of.

Curious now: every goddamn device beeps. You name it ; from your computer to your camera, from the kids-toys to your car....everything beeps.

It's  a never ending war with the beeps....thankyouverymuch Sputnik!


The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)

by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Thu Oct 4th, 2007 at 09:18:28 AM EST
Unfortunately I wasn't born at that stage. although I remember being taken by my father round to my grandfathers who had a TV to see the moon landings.

The main source of space news for me was my local town newspaper, due to a science teacher in the local senior school who decided to listen to satelites after sputniks launch, and ended up building a satelite observation laboratory. Whenever he discovered a new satelite, it would be reported in the local paper, because half of the satelites were secret and hence unreported.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Thu Oct 4th, 2007 at 09:19:54 AM EST
Poor Laika!  

Never Forget!

No, I am not old enough to remember.  I only know we made papier mache Sputniks in art class in 4th grade...  I did not know what a Sputnik was & we were given a lot of creative license.  

BTW, Sergei Khrushchev is in Chicago of all places today to mark the anniversary.  


"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Thu Oct 4th, 2007 at 10:42:33 AM EST
Laika was not only condemned to death in space, it had to suffer from failure of thermal protection for hours... But there were more lucky Russian space dogs.

Sergei Krushchov is currently "an expert on Russia at Brown University in Rhode Island". I found this recent article of him:

[We did not] report Korolev's name. The KGB knew that there was really no need to keep his name secret, but, as KGB chief Ivan Serov told me, the enemy's resources were limited, so let them waste their efforts trying to uncover "non-secret" secrets.

But the world was desperate to learn his identity. The Nobel Prize committee decided to give an award to Sputnik's "chief designer", but first it needed the person's name. The committee requested it from the Soviet government.

My father weighed his response carefully. The matter was complicated, and his concern wasn't confidentiality. The Council of Chief Designers was in charge of all space projects. Korolev was the head of the council, but the other chief designers - more than a dozen - considered themselves no less significant.

My father understood that the chief designers were ambitious and jealous people. If the Nobel committee were to give the award only to Korolev, my father thought, the members would fly into a rage. They would refuse to work with Korolev. A well-organised team would collapse like a house of cards, and the hopes for space research and missile design would be dashed, threatening the country's security.

[In the end,] my father told the committee that all the Soviet people had distinguished themselves on Sputnik, and they all deserved the award. Korolev was offended but kept silent. The prize went to somebody else.

But despite the pains my father had taken, the other designers expressed growing discontent about Korolev getting all the publicity, even if anonymously. In their "secret" world, it wasn't any secret who was behind the title "chief designer".

That's utterly stupid - refusing a high-profile Nobel price because of percetion speculations, completely ineffective on top of that. What are leaders for if not for managing egos? Even if we acknowledge the share of luck in Korolyov's achievement, lucky people have the right to get their luck (especially if one had Gulag experiences). Here we may notice the philosophical difference between communist (or perhaps Russian) sense of equality and capitalist (or American) sense of achievement. The former would hardly give any lucky advantages to anyone, the latter would not acknowledge any achievememnts as lucky. But randomness is there.

by das monde on Fri Oct 5th, 2007 at 02:41:04 AM EST
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