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Sputnik 1: Dawn of the Space Age

The Sputnik program (Russian: Спутник, Russian pronunciation: [ˈsputnʲɪk]) was a series of robotic spacecraft missions launched by the Soviet Union. The first of these, Sputnik 1, launched the first human-made object to orbit the Earth. That launch took place on October 4, 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year and demonstrated the viability of using artificial satellites to explore the upper atmosphere.

The Russian word sputnik literally means "co-traveler", "traveling companion" or "satellite",[note 1] and its R-7 launch vehicle was designed initially to carry nuclear warheads.


Early flights

USSR postage stamp depicting Sputnik 1. The caption reads: "The world's first Soviet artificial satellite of the Earth".

Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957. The satellite was 58 cm (about 23 in) in diameter and weighed approximately 83.6 kg (about 183 lb). Each of its elliptical orbits around the Earth took about 96 minutes. Monitoring of the satellite was done by many amateur radio operators[1] and the Jodrell Bank Observatory.[2] Sputnik's R-7 booster had previously proven itself more than one month earlier as the world's first ICBM in the successful long-range test flight of August 21 (with the accomplishment published in Aviation Week). Sputnik 1 was not visible from Earth but the casing of the R-7 booster, traveling behind it, was.

Sputnik 2 was launched on November 3, 1957 and carried the first living passenger into orbit, a dog named Laika. The mission planners did not provide for the safe return of the spacecraft or its passenger, making Laika the first orbital casualty. This mission was promptly dubbed "Muttnik" by US humorists.[3]

The first attempt to launch Sputnik 3, on February 3, 1958, failed, but the second on May 15 succeeded, and it carried a large array of instruments for geophysical research. Its tape recorder failed, however, making it unable to measure the Van Allen radiation belts.

Sputnik 4 (Korabl Sputnik 1) was launched two years later, on May 15, 1960. It was the first test-flight of the Vostok spacecraft that would be used for the first human spaceflight. When reentry was attempted, a bug in the guidance system pointed the capsule in the wrong direction, so instead of re-entering the atmosphere the satellite moved into a higher orbit. It re-entered the atmosphere on or about September 5, 1962. An object identified as part of Sputnik 4 was found in a street in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in the USA.

Sputnik 5 (Korabl Sputnik 2) was launched on August 19, 1960 with the dogs Belka and Strelka, 40 mice, 2 rats and several plants on board. The spacecraft returned to earth the next day and all animals were recovered safely.

Sputnik 6 (Korabl Sputnik 3) was launched on December 2, 1960 with the dogs Pchelka and Mushka, who died on re-entry by an unplanned destructive charge.

Sputnik 7 (Tyazheliy Sputnik 4); launched February 4, 1961; failed to eject its probe into a Venus trajectory

Sputnik 8 (Tyazheliy Sputnik 5); launched February 12, 1961; platform to launch Venera 1

Sputnik 9 (Korabl Sputnik 4) was launched March 9, 1961. The spacecraft carried a dummy cosmonaut, the dog Chernushka, mice, and a guinea pig. The flight lasted for a single orbit, and a successful recovery was made.

Sputnik 10 (Korabl Sputnik 5) was launched March 25, 1961. It carried a dummy cosmonaut and a dog (Zvezdochka), as well as the television system and other scientific apparatus. After one orbit, a successful recovery was made. This was the final precursor flight before the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin was launched on Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961.

Later numbers were applied by Western observers first to cover the first eight Cosmos satellites and later to denote planetary missions, referring to failures or the 4th stage left in Earth orbit. (The Soviets during this period would not admit the existence of failures, so 'Sputnik' became the de facto name used by trackers for such objects.) This practice seems to have ceased after Sputnik 25, as the Soviets began to use the 'Cosmos' name to cover such failures.

Venus Missions during the August-September, 1962 launch window:

Mars Missions during the October-November, 1962 launch window:

Lunar Missions:


The surprise launch of Sputnik 1, coupled with the spectacular failure of the United States of America's first two Project Vanguard launch attempts, shocked the United States, which responded with a number of early satellite launches, including Explorer 1, Project SCORE, and Courier 1B. The Sputnik crisis also led to the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1972): DARPA, and NASA, and an increase in U.S. government spending on scientific research and education. The launch of Sputnik 1 inspired U.S. writer Herb Caen to coin the term "beatnik" in an article about the Beat Generation in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 1958.[4] See also: -nik.

Sputnik 40 and Sputnik 41

Sputnik 40, also called Sputnik PS2, Radio Sputnik 17 "RS-17" and Mini-Sputnik, was a 13-scale model amateur radio satellite launched from the Mir space station on 3 November 1997 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Sputnik 1. The spacecraft body resembled Sputnik 1 and was built by students at the Polytechnic Laboratory of Nalchik in Kabardino-Balkaria. The transmitter was built by students from Jules Reydellet College in Réunion, with technical support from AMSAT-France. Its batteries expired on 29 December 1998 and the VHF transmitter fell silent.[5][6][7] Its international designator is 1997-058C, United States Space Command object 24958.[8]

Sputnik 41 (RS-18, designator 1998-62C, object 25533[8]) was launched a year later, on 10 November 1998. It also carried a transmitter.


  1. ^ The word sputnik (Russian: спутник) consists of the prefix с-, indicating "with" or "together", the root пут, which means "path" or "journey", and the suffix -ник, meaning "pertaining to or involved in." Thus, the word literally means "companion", "traveling companion" or "satellite", and is ultimately a modern adaptation of the Old Church Slavonic version of the word: supotiniku. Contemporary American newspapers sometimes translated the word as "fellow traveler," a term that was already an anti-communist catch phrase.


Further reading

  • Dickson, Paul, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, Walker & Company (June 26, 2007), ISBN 978-0802713650

Three recent historical articles are noteworthy for their research and debunking of common misinformation:

See also

External links



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