It was 64 years ago that the space age truly began with the launch of the first artificial orbital satellite. Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4th, 1957, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Soviet Kazakhstan. The Russian word “Sputnik” means “companion”.
This first artificial satellite was about the size of a beachball with 4 antennas attached. It carried no scientific instruments, only a radio transmitter that sent out a repeating beep at regular intervals. This signal was broadcast in the open and could be picked up by ham radio operators around the world. At the time there was speculation that the beeps might contain some type of coded signal, but this turned out not to be the case. The radio transmitter operated for three weeks, until the on-board chemical batteries finally failed.
The launch of Sputnik 1 was a great shock to many people in the United States since it was thought that the Soviet Union was not able to accomplish such a feat at the time. The Soviet Union furthered their lead in space by launching Sputnik 2 into orbit less than a month later, on November 3. Sputnik 2 carried a dog named Laika and she became the first animal in orbit.
The United States tried to launch its first artificial satellite named Vanguard on December 6, 1957.
This launch was to be part of the United States contribution to the International Geophysical Year. Unfortunately, the rocket rose only a few feet off the launchpad before exploding in a spectacular fireball.
It would not be until January 31, 1958, nearly four months after Sputnik 1, that the U.S. would successfully orbit a satellite named Explorer 1. Unlike the Soviet Sputnik, Explorer 1 carried a cosmic ray detector and made significant discoveries about the radiation environment around the Earth.
In 1957 space travel was at its infancy. Today the International Space Station hosts crews of seven for six months at a time, private companies are beginning to take regular citizens into space and NASA is planning to return astronauts to the Moon with project Artemis. It was a small beeping metallic sphere though that started the journey 64 years ago. There are still many space firsts left to come in the decades ahead.