Race to Space

November 3, 1957 – Sputnik 2 Sends First Living Animal into Orbit

Monument to Laika, Moscow

Monument to Laika, Moscow

On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched their second Sputnik earth satellite from an ICBM R-7 platform.  The 13 foot high, 2 foot diameter capsule contained compartments for radio transmitters, a telemetry system, a programming unit, regeneration and temperature control systems, scientific instruments (including photometers to measure ultraviolet and x-ray solar radiation), and in her own separate padded and pressurized cabin, a part-terrier, part-Samoyed female dog named Laika.  Other than hitchhiker microbes, no living animal had ever blasted off into space before little 13-pound Laika (which meant “Barker” in Russian) went up, fitted with a harness, electrodes to monitor her condition, and supplies of oxygen, food, and water.

With Sputnik 1 still orbiting Earth, transmitting radio signals and ICBM nightmares across the globe, Sputnik 2’s successful launch introduced an even greater level of perceived alarm and threat by Cold War antagonists to the USSR’s new space supremacy.  Sputnik 2 did not carry out its mission entirely as planned, however.  While the satellite-bearing rocket achieved earth orbit, where it successfully jettisoned its nose cone, a portion of the rocket called “Blok A” did not separate, inhibiting the thermal control system.  Vital thermal insulation was torn loose during the nose cone separation as well, and Sputnik’s internal temperatures soon reached 104°F.

Sputnik 2’s fate to burn up in earth atmosphere reentry occurred on April 14, 1958, after 162 days of circling the globe.  The original plan for Laika – painful for all animal-lovers everywhere to contemplate – was for her to provide information for a limited period of time on the effects of space flight on living beings, through monitoring her vital signs.  After ten days, she was to be euthanized by lethal medication-supplemented food.  Once sent into orbit, she could never return.  But after the early loss of her capsule’s thermal insulation, Laika was only able to survive for a few hours before succumbing to the heat and stress.  Her death was a small, but significant tragedy on the road to man’s Race to Space.

Sputnik 2 Module

Sputnik 2 Module. Photo: Raumfahrer.net

October 4, 1957 – Soviets Launch Sputnik 1

Sputnik 1. Photo: NASA


On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union upped the ante in the Space Race with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite.  Blasted through the atmosphere from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a two-stage R-7 rocket, Sputnik 1 was a 23-inch diameter, 184 pound, aluminum-magnesium-titanium sheathed sphere with two whip-like antennae.  Powered by silver-zinc batteries, it entered a low, elliptical orbit emitting a radio signal which could be received on Earth by both Soviet scientists and the curious (and highly-alarmed) American public.  Sputnik traveled 18,000 miles per hour, completing an Earth-orbit every 96 minutes.  Radio transmissions continued for 22 days, until transmitter batteries were exhausted.  The history-making satellite spent 3 months in orbit, traveling a total of 37 million miles, before burning up in atmospheric reentry on January 4, 1958.

While not able to conduct as many experiments as the Soviets had initially hoped, Sputnik was able to gather information during its three-month run concerning the density of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere, and meteoroid detection by penetration of the satellite’s outer hull.

The successful launch of an artificial satellite was one of the primary goals of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), inaugurated on July 1, 1957.  The Soviets had first proposed developing such a satellite on May 27, 1954, and President Dwight Eisenhower announced on July 29, 1955 that the United States would send their own version of the technological achievement into space during the IGY.  But Sputnik took America and its government by surprise.  Americans now had to take Soviet scientific abilities much more seriously.  A sense of vulnerability to attack led to panic reactions by the public, as they listened in to Sputnik’s ominous “beep-beep” when it passed directly overhead.  The US government responded with renewed commitment to scientific and technological research, and military and educational program revamping and investment.  ICBMs, missile defense systems, and satellites were all placed on a developmental fast-track.  After several failed attempts, the United States’ first successful launch of its own artificial satellite, Explorer 1, occurred on January 31, 1958.

Numerous references to Sputnik in movies, television shows, and pop songs have made the term part of the American cultural landscape.  Replicas and models of the satellite can be found at the United Nations, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and the Science Museum in London.