The aftermath of the Sputnik launch

Sputnik replica

Likely one of the most accurate replicas of the PS-1 (Sputnik-1) displayed at the Cosmonautics Memorial Museum in Moscow, Russia. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

In his memoirs, son of Nikita Khrushchev, Sergei, recalled how his father learned about the satellite launch. The Soviet leader was having a late reception at the Mariinsky Palace, in Kiev, Ukraine, when around 11 p.m. an aide called him to the telephone. Khrushchev reappeared minutes later, "with his face shining":

I can tell you some very pleasant and important news, Khrushchev said, Korolev just called**** (at this point he acquired a secretive look). He's one of our missile designers. Remember not to mention his name - it's classified. So, Korolev has just reported that today, a little while ago, an artificial satellite of the Earth was launched." Father looked triumphantly around at those present. Everyone smiled politely, without understanding just what had happened." (87)

Unlike party officials, the world's major capitals received the news of the Sputnik launch as an outmost sensation. Soon after first official dispatches from the USSR had reached the West, a reporter from the Times of London telephoned Gordon Harris, the head of public affairs at the Redstone Arsenal, the home of the America's ballistic missile program. He hoped to get a reaction from the center's leading scientist, Wernher von Braun. Instead, he triggered Harris' frantic telephone call to the Arsenal's Officers Club, where von Braun was having a cocktail party with high-ranking military officials from Washington. "I will be damned," was von Braun's reaction, reflecting his long and futile efforts to take charge of the American satellite program. Most of his frustration was clearly directed toward Washington officials, rather than the Soviets, whose move he had expected for quite some time. (257)

It was now turn of American rocketeers to advertise the Soviet successes, so they could get money for their own space projects. In the retrospect, it is easy to see how an enormous American effort in space that followed and ultimately lead to the Apollo Moon landing, was sparked to life by a single event of October 4, 1957. On that day, however, von Braun could just beg his bosses to give him a permission to proceed with his own satellite launch, which he promised just within 60 days after an official "go ahead."

Next morning, Wernher von Braun and Major. Gen. Medaris, the head of the US Army rocket program were showing their goods at Redstone Arsenal to a newly appointed Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy and his entourage. As a former advertising executive, McElroy was well qualified to assess the propaganda value of the Sputnik launch, let alone its military, economic, political and scientific significance.

During an impromptu press-conference, von Braun yet again reminded his audience that given the political will and the money, all technical obstacles to the US satellite launch can be overcome quickly. However even as the tsunami of Sputnik was spreading, the political will, did not come overnight. President Eisenhower characterized the Sputnik as "one small ball in the air..." The president's aide Sherman Adams echoed this attitude, reminding that the United States planned its satellite for scientific research, not for participation in "an outer-space basketball game." (257)

McElroy tried to calm public fears by insisting that Sputnik did not prove that there was a "missile gap" -- a perceived advantage that the Soviets had in long-range missiles that could hit targets on the U.S. soil.

However, the overwhelming public reaction in the United States swung to the opposite extreme, comparing Sputnik to Pearl Harbor, and fearing more than ever, the imminent Soviet nuclear attack against the US. Unlike many previous Soviet statements about its military capabilities, Sputnik turned out to be the most effective messenger, thanks to its stunning apparentness.

In the following days, masses around the World could actually see the "new Moon in the sky" trekking across the night sky, although most of these sightings were probably that of the core stage of the rocket, which had an estimated Magnitude 6, while the satellite itself was estimated to be of Magnitude 1. By design, a simple radio could pick up Sputnik's signal.

Sputnik and the American public opinion

Depending on the ideology of the viewer, a Soviet-made moon in the sky, could simultaneously represent an imminent nuclear holocaust, or a hope for oppressed and dispossessed, or -- for small band of space enthusiasts -- the dawn of the interplanetary travel.

The enormous resonance of the Sputnik launch was also the result of the multifaceted nature of this single event and its ability to simultaneously break so many assumptions, long-standing theories and even entire political strategies. The list of "paradigm shifts," (real or perceived), the Sputnik had triggered in geopolitics was just staggering:

Before Sputnik After Sputnik
The USSR can not attack the US with nuclear weapons, as its delivery aircraft have limited flight range and can be reliably intercepted. The USSR can strike the US territory with nuclear weapons, as there is no effective defense against ballistic missiles.
The United States could theoretically win the nuclear war with the USSR. Winning the nuclear war with the USSR would be practically impossible.
The American leadership in the world is unmatched technologically and militarily. The USSR is emerging as a major challenger for world influence and military domination.
The Soviet missiles might be comparable to those of the United States. The Soviet missiles apparently have larger lifting capacity then those of the US.
The democratic free-market system is essential for technological advances in science and technology. The centralized, government controlled system might be more effective for large-scale technological enterprises.
Developing countries should look up to the United States as a model for economic growth and prosperity. The third world might feel tempted to ally itself with the USSR to counterweight the dictate of the US.
The US has the best public education system in the world. The US education system, might be lagging behind of other countries in scientific education.
The US is the most technologically advanced nation, the majority of modern technological achievements come from the United States; therefore the first satellite can only be launched by the United States. The USSR won the race into space. The US technological supremacy is challenged.
The USSR is technologically backward and economically poor agrarian country. The USSR perhaps made great advances in many fields of science and technology to enable the satellite launch.

In the middle of 1957, or few months before Sputnik was launched, less then 50 percent of adult population of the United States had ever heard of satellites. In contrast, a year later, more than 90 percent of Americans knew about satellites. A survey published by Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in 1959, found that immediately after the Sputnik launch 26 percent of Americans thought that Russian science was superior to that of the US. A year later, as the hype subsided and the United States finally succeeded with placing their own satellites with scientific equipment into orbit, only one out of 10 Americans perceived the Russian science as superior. (260)

Despite generally "doom and gloom" attitude of American nationalists toward Sputnik launch, some in the West did see a silver lining in the event. Paraphrasing one French newspaper, it could be said that now when Russians cured their inferiority complex and Americans lost their superiority complex, two sides could finally reach a common ground. In some sense they did. Despite inevitable standoff of the Cold War, the real "hot" war between East and West had become less likely. What is known today as the concept of the Mutually Assured Destruction was suddenly catapulted to a sky-high altitude...

***A TASS announcement on the launch of the first artificial satellite of the Earth

(The Pravda newspaper, Oct. 5, 1957)


During a number of years, the Soviet Union conducts research and development work on creation of artificial satellites of the Earth. As it was announced in the press, first launches of satellite in the USSR were scheduled to coincide with the program of the scientific research of the International geophysical year.

As a result of the large and extensive work of the scientific research institutions and design bureaus, there was created the world's first artificial satellite of the Earth. On October 4, 1957, the first successful launch of the satellite was conducted in the USSR. According to the preliminary data, the launch vehicle gave the satellite a necessary velocity of around 8000 meters per second. At present time, the satellite follows elliptical trajectories around Earth and its flight can be observed in the rays of the rising and setting Sun with the help of simplest optical devices (binoculars, telescopes etc.)

According to calculations, which are now being confirmed by direct observations, the satellite will be moving at the altitude up to 900 kilometers over the Earth surface; the time of the one full orbit will be 1 hour 35 min, the angle of the orbital inclination toward the Equator is equal 65 degrees. Over the region of the city of Moscow on October 5, 1957, the satellite will pass twice - at 1 hour 46 min. at night and at 6 hours 42 min in the morning Moscow Time. Reports about the following movement of the first artificial satellite launch in the USSR on October 4, will be broadcast regularly by the mass media radio stations.

The satellite has a form of a ball with the diameter of 58 cm and the weight of 83.6 kg. On it are installed two radio transmitters, continuously emitting radio signals with the frequency of 20.005 and 40.002 MHz (length of the wave is 15 and 7.5 meters respectively). The power of the transmitter provide stable reception of radio signals by a wide range of amateur radios. Signals have a form of telephone dispatches with the duration of about 0.3 second and the pause of the same length. The transmission of the signal on one frequency is conducted during the pause of the signal on other frequency.

Scientific station deployed in various points of the Soviet Union conduct tracking of the satellite and determine elements of its trajectory. Since the density of the thin upper layers of the atmosphere is not reliably know, at present time, there is no data for accurate determination of the time of the existence of the satellite and the location of its reentry into the dense layers of the atmosphere. Calculation have shown that as a result of the enormous speed of the satellite, at the end of its existence, it will be burn up upon reaching dense layers of the atmosphere at the altitude of several dozen of kilometers.

In Russia, even at the end of the 19th century by the efforts of the outstanding scientist K. E. Tsiolkovsky was scientifically proven the possibility of space flight with the help of a rocket.

The successful launch of the first human-made satellite of the Earth makes the enormous contribution into the treasury of the world science and culture. The scientific experiment conducted at such a high altitude has enormous importance for understanding of the properties of outer space and study of the Earth as a planet of our Solar system.

In the course of the International geophysical year, Soviet Union expects to conduct launches of several more artificial satellites of the Earth. These follow-on satellites will have increased size and weight, and they will conduct a wide-range program of scientific research.

Artificial satellites of the Earth will pave the way to interplanetary travel and, possibly, our contemporaries are destined to witness how freed and meaningful labor of the people of the new, socialist society makes a reality the most daring dreams of the humanity.


****From Golovanov's book, it seems that Vasili Ryabikov, the Chairman of the State Commission overseeing the Sputnik launch, called Khrushchev to inform him about the success of the mission.

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Written and illustrated by Anatoly Zak

Last update: January 16, 2021

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