At 10:49 PM on October 4, 1957, almost 12 years of competition between the US and the then-USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, now Russia) began. No, it wasn’t a boxing match, it wasn’t an eating contest and it wasn’t tag; it was the Space Race. Sputnik marked the first successful launch of a spacecraft into orbit, and it continued to send messages for three months before burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.
Sometimes the messages were radio signals, and sometimes they were beeps. Both the spoken Russian and mindless beeps terrified Americans caught in the heat of Red Fever – or, at least, those who could tune in with their home radios to hear the communiques. That’s right, Sputnik’s signals were strong enough that even amateur radios could pick them up, despite being hundreds of miles away and in a vacuum!
Sputnik followed an egg-shaped path around the Earth, making a complete pass in roughly an hour and a half. The spacecraft clocked in at around 18,000 miles per hour and traveled, through the course of its orbit, between 143 and 584 miles from Earth. People could even have the chance of spotting Sputnik, with the help of telescopes, at dawn and dusk! For all its historical significance, Sputnik only weighed roughly that of a grown man (184 pounds) and was less than two feet across.
It wasn’t until after Sputnik had already completed its mission that US launched their own satellite, Explorer, on January 31, 1958. Unfortunately for them, by then Sputnik 2 had already made headlines with the First Dog in Space. The USSR was largely successful in monopolizing the number of space “firsts” in the following years; from first man and woman in space to first moon impact, orbit and soft-land.
Even the first spacewalk and first impact on Venus were claimed by the USSR’s outstanding space program! Still, it was the US spacecraft Apollo II that carried two astronauts, not cosmonauts, to the moon in July 1969. From that landing, the US went down in history as having the First Man to walk on the Moon. It was truly a hard-won victory by NASA after over a decade of work trying to catch up with the USSR.