Launch of Sputnik

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

On October 4, 1957 Sputnik I, the first earth-orbiting artificial satellite, was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan. The Soviet space program, under the direction of its Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, thereby achieved a major victory in its competition — the “space race” — with the United States.

Sputnik I weighed 184 pounds, or six times more than the Vanguard satellite that the United States tried but failed to put into orbit in December 1957. One month after the launching of Sputnik I, on November 3, 1957, Sputnik II, a satellite weighing 1,120 pounds and containing the dog “Laika” was sent into orbit. Because the alloys capable of resisting the intense heat produced by the thrust of the rocket necessary to launch such satellites were unavailable to Kurchatov, he designed a four-chamber cluster of rockets, adapted from his work on the Soviet ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) system. When Iurii Gagarin was sent into space in 1961, a giant “cluster of clusters” rocket with a total of twenty engines was used.

These achievements astounded the international scientific community and earned the Soviet Union considerable prestige. They also had significant military implications, since a missile that could launch satellites into orbit could also deliver nuclear warheads to targets in the United States. The United States Congress responded to this perceived Soviet technological superiority by passing the National Defense Education Act in 1958. It called for spending some five billion dollars on higher education in the sciences, foreign languages, and the humanities. Despite intelligence reports that the Soviet Union was not undertaking significant ICBM deployment, the Pentagon insisted on, and received, a massive increase in spending on missile development.

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