Sixty years ago today, Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit 150 miles above the surface of the Earth. It was the first artificial satellite in human history, a simple polished aluminum sphere, 23 inches in diameter, equipped with four radio antennas. The launch came as a shock to the United States, and ignited the Space Race which ultimately culminated in the Apollo program and the first manned landings on the Moon in 1969.
Now, with the perspective of history, free from the Cold War politics and nationalism that shaped the American response at the time, I think we can put the Sputnik launch on its proper pedestal as one of the watershed human achievements. The fact that it was the Soviets and not the democratic U.S. that orbited the first artificial satellite left a bad taste in the mouths of those working in the fledgling American aerospace industry sixty years ago. The Soviets were the enemy; the news of a shiny metal ball from Russia passing overhead, emitting a distinctive series of radio beeps as it went, was not a cause for celebration, but for panic and indignation. Today, I think it’s wrong not to celebrate Sputnik. It’s a bitter patriot indeed who can frown at the achievement even sixty years after the fact, with the Cold War over, knowing that the U.S. eventually won the race to the Moon, anyway.
Even from the point of view of the most nationalistic Cold Warrior, the Sputnik launch can now only sanely be viewed as a positive. Three months following the launch, the U.S., under the auspices of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, launched its first artificial satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit. Nine months after Sputnik 1, in July 1958, the U.S. Congress and President Eisenhower officially created NASA. Within a few months of that, Project Mercury, the first American manned spaceflight program, was inaugurated. In July 1969, less than twelve years after Sputnik 1 made the first orbit of a man-made satellite in the history of the planet Earth, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon.
Sputnik 1 itself flew for only three months, falling from its orbit and incinerating in the Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958.