Oct. 4, 2022

Sputnik 1 Becomes the First Satellite in Space

Sputnik 1 Becomes the First Satellite in Space

October 4, 1957. The Soviet Union launches the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit, sparking the Space Race with the United States. This episode is sponsored by: https://www.policygenius.com/


Cold Open

It’s 1939 in the far eastern reaches of Soviet Russia.

Inside a prison complex in the freezing wastes of Siberia, 32-year-old Sergei Korolev swings his pickaxe against a rock. Sergei is an inmate in the gulag - a system of detention camps operated by the Soviet government as a repository for opponents to the Communist regime. Inside his thread-breaded gloves, Sergei’s fingers have lost all feeling, and the fur of his winter hat sparkles with frost.

But the rhythmic clang of his pickaxe against stone is interrupted when Sergei hears somebody shouting his name. He turns to see a prison guard approaching, stopping his way across the snow-covered rubble. Sergei braces himself for a beating. But the guard isn’t here to administer punishment. Instead, he tells Sergei to follow him. He’s being transferred to a different facility.

Sergei follows the guard into the main block of the prison where he’s told to take a seat and wait further instruction. Sergei does so, wondering what godforsaken place he will be sent to next.

A few moments later, a senior officer marches over. He asks Sergei if it’s true that he was once employed by the Reactive Scientific Research Institute. Sergei nods yes. The officer explains that Sergei has been selected by the Soviet Premier, Joseph Stalin, to be relocated to a specialist prison for scientists and engineers.

Soon, Sergei finds himself in the back of a truck bumping along a dirt road through a pine forest. Behind him, the prison gates recede into the distance. Sergei has no idea what the future holds. But one thing he knows for certain: whatever lies ahead, can’t be worse than what he's leaving behind.

Before his arrest in 1938, Sergei Korolev was a rocket scientist overseeing the development of the Soviet Union’s cruise missile program. Sergei never spoke out against the Communist regime, but he knew too many military secrets for Stalin’s liking, so he was arrested on falsified charges and sentenced to nine years hard labor.

But Sergei’s reputation for scientific genius saves him. After five months in the gulag, Sergei is relocated to a specialist facility for engineers, technicians, and scientists. There, he lends his expertise to the design of intercontinental ballistic missiles. And soon, the same team that pioneered these missiles will take charge of the new Soviet Space Program.

In this capacity, Sergei will lead the construction of the world’s first artificial satellite, a development that will catapult humankind into a new, scientific era and kickstart a competition between the USSR and the USA, a rivalry that began with the launch of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is October 4th, 1957: Sputnik 1 Becomes the First Satellite in Space.

Act One: Arms Race

It’s late 1953 inside the headquarters of the Soviet Ministry of Defense Industry in Moscow; four years before Sputnik 1 is launched.

Sergei Korolev steps inside the office of Dimitri Ustinov, the ministry's chief. Sergei salutes, and Ustinov gestures for the 46-year-old rocket scientist to take a seat. As he does so. Sergei explains the reason for his dropping by.

The subject of today’s meeting is the ongoing Cold War with the United States. And in particular, the race to acquire an arsenal of nuclear weapons bigger and better than their rival. Right now, the Soviet Union is falling behind.

The US got a head start when they introduced the world’s first hydrogen bomb in 1952 - a weapon 2,500 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That same year, the Americans built an aircraft capable of carrying and delivering this unprecedented weapon. The B-52 bomber can fly 6,000 miles with a payload of up to 35 tons. And even though the Soviets completed their own hydrogen bomb earlier this year, they still haven’t developed an aircraft capable of supporting its weight. Until they do, their bomb is useless.

But Korolev believes he’s found a solution.

He tells Ustinov that he wants to develop a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Such a missile would enable the Soviets to target the US without the use of an aircraft and level the playing field in the arms race. The Americans might have their B-52. But they haven’t yet developed a long-range missile, and the ability to wage nuclear war with the push of a button.

Ustinov eagerly listens. And then agrees to apportion ministry funds to the project, telling Sergei to get to work without delay. The task isn’t going to be easy. Because no one has achieved anything like this before.

Five years ago, Sergei introduced the R-1 missile: a medium-range rocket capable of traveling 170 miles with a payload of 800 kilograms. The construction of the R-1 was based on designs that the Soviets gathered from Nazi Germany following the end of World War II. But the US also has German plans for rockets and their scientists and engineers, and has enlisted their expertise in the arms race against the Soviet Union.

But even with the help of German designs and rocket scientists, neither the Americans nor the Soviets have been able to successfully build an intercontinental ballistic missile - a rocket capable of traveling thousands of miles and deliver a nuclear payload.

So from his design plan north of Moscow, Sergei works tirelessly to be the first to do it. Since the construction of the R-1, Sergei has developed five more missiles, each more powerful than the last. In the matter of just a few years, he finishes work on the R-7: the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of propelling a five-ton nuclear warhead a distance of more than 5,000 miles.

On August 21st, 1957, at the cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Sergei watches as the R-7 completes its first successful test launch. The news is cause for celebration among Soviet leadership; they’ve just pulled ahead of the US in the arms race. But for Sergei, the success of the R-7 is significant for different reasons.

For his entire career, Sergei has worked in the service of the military. But what motivates him is not the desire to facilitate nuclear war. Rather, it's his fascination with the science of space travel. Sergei knows it will be years before advances in aerospace technology can make humanspace travel possible. But having built a missile capable of reaching altitudes beyond the earth’s atmosphere, Sergei is not thinking about launching a nuclear weapon. He’s thinking about launching a satellite.

Sergei originally suggested launching a satellite in 1954 but Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wasn’t interested. He was more concerned with building nuclear weapons. But when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that his administration intended to launch an American satellite, Khrushchev took a sudden interest. In the spirit of Cold War competition, Khrushchev wanted the Soviet Union to be the first country to send a satellite into orbit. He knew it would be a symbolic victory, and would make for useful propaganda.

So as soon as the R-7 rocket is complete, Khrushchev has authorized Sergei and his team of engineers to begin constructing the satellite. They work quickly, knowing the Americans will be hot on their heels. And about one month later, Sergei unveils Sputnik 1 - a 23-inch metal ball with two radio transmitters and four antennas. And in a matter of weeks, it will be ready for liftoff.

The launch of Sputnik I will serve as the starting pistol in the Space Race. Scientists in America will scramble to launch their own satellite. And people all around the world will turn their gaze toward the heavens, wondering what this race to conquer the heavens means for the future of life on Earth.

Act Two: Space Race

It’s the evening of October 4th, 1957.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower is enjoying some rest and relaxation on his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Eisenhower loves it here. It gives him a break from the high-stress atmosphere of the White House.

Two years ago, Eisenhower suffered a heart attack. And his doctors have strongly urged him to spend more time on the farm. His house sits here on a piece of land that was once part of the famous Civil War battlefield. And the president and first lady spend most of their weekends here reading, painting, or walking the grounds.

On this Friday night, Eisenhower sits in the back room enjoying the beautiful, twilight view of his backyard when he hears the phone ring. When the president picks up, a voice on the other end of the line tells him that something big has just happened in the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower sighs, knowing his nice relaxing weekend is over.

The next morning, while Eisenhower formulates a response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik-I, the American people wake up to the startling flash bulletin from Universal International News.

"Broadcaster: Today, a new moon is in the sky. A 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket, here an artist's conception of how the feat was accomplished, a three-stage rocket number one the booster in the class of an intercontinental missile, its weight estimated at 50 tons, a smaller second stage took over at five thousand miles an hour and carried on to the highest point reached, five hundred miles up, the artificial moon is boosted to a speed counterbalancing the pull of gravity and released. You are hearing the actual signals transmitted by the earth-circling satellite one of the great scientific feats of the age."

Immediately, some Americans rush outside and stare up at the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of the beach-ball-sized object. Others watch the news broadcast with puzzled frowns, wondering what grave implications this event might have.

Many fear Sputnik is a surveillance device, intercepting American military secrets for Moscow. Others worry less about Sputnik and more about the missile that brought it into orbit; if these Russians can blast a satellite into space, what’s to stop them from sending a nuclear warhead toward American soil?

But whether the news of Sputnik’s launch is received with fascination or dread, the consensus feeling is that something irrevocable and era-defining has just happened. The front page of the Daily Express in England, boldly declares that: “The Space Age is Here!”


A few days later, in the Executive Office Building in Washington, President Dwight D. Eisenhower prepares to speak at a press conference.

The President wears a stoical expression as he shuffles papers behind a podium. Eisenhower knows it’s important to project an aura of calm authority at a time like this.

When it comes time for questions, a reporter stands up and says: “Mr. President, Russia has launched a satellite. They also claim to have successfully fired an intercontinental ballistic missile - none of which this country has done. I ask you, sir, what are we going to do about it?”

Eisenhower tries to hide his frustration. In his mind, Sputnik is a major scientific development - but not a military threat. The correct response is to applaud the Russians’ achievement and to trust American prowess to buildupon it. The wrong approach is to panic and rush things along just to score points in the meaningless competition of this so-called “Space Race”. But the President knows he’s in the minority.

Many Americans believe that Sputnik represents a Soviet propaganda victory at the expense of America’s prestige and pride. These people don’t want measured responses. They want answers. They want to know how this happened, and what Eisenhower plans to do about it.

Another reporter’s hand shoots into the air. Eisenhower nods wearily. This reporter stands and asks: “Mr. President, can you give the public any assurance that our own satellite program will be brought up to par with Russia’s?”

Eisenhower calmly explains that American scientists have been planning a satellite launch for several years. They will continue as planned with their existing program, and he urges the public to have faith in American ingenuity.

But despite his reassuring words, pressure continues to mount on the President. So Eisenhower does decide to act. He moves to implement reforms aimed at harnessing science in the interest of national security. He also accelerates the military’s intercontinental ballistic missile program and urges Congress to take action too. On July 29th, 1958, President Eisenhower signs a bill that establishes a government agency dedicated to space exploration: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. And soon, the eyes of the American public will turn to their television screens once again, as the United States prepares to launch a satellite of its own. 

Act Three: New Frontiers

It’s December 6th, 1957; two months after Sputnik’s launch.

President Eisenhower sits in the Oval Office, awaiting news of the first attempt by the United States to launch a satellite into space. Eisenhower is feeling the pressure.

Since the dawn of the US missile program, all three branches of the military have been working to create their own rockets. But between the Navy, Army, and Air Force, it’s the Army who has the best shot of designing a rocket capable of launching a satellite into space. And this is largely because of who they have running their program...

Wernher von Braun is a German aerospace engineer and the former chief missile designer for Adolf Hitler. After World War II, Wernher surrendered to US forces who decided to utilize his expertise for their own missile projects.

Wernher is now the director of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and for the past decade, he’s been building an arsenal of missiles known as the Redstone rockets. Wernher has also been hard at work on plans to launch a satellite. And after Sputnik successfully reach the orbit, Wernher fully expected President Eisenhower to appoint himas the man to bring America into the space age.

But Eisenhower had other ideas. The President has always felt that when America launches its first satellite, the technology used should be pioneered by Americans - not a German scientist formerly employed by the Nazis. So the Eisenhower Administration decided not to support the Army’s satellite project. Instead, Eisenhower threw his weight behind a different branch of the military. So today, at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the Navy will launch its own rocket - the Vanguard - with a satellite attached in the nose cone.

Now, Eisenhower waits to hear the outcome. Shortly after noon, Eisenhower hears a knock on the Oval Office door. His Chief of Staff informs the President that the launch was a failure and the Navy’s Vanguard rocket exploded only seconds after take-off.

The President’s heart sinks. It’s another blow to America’s pride. And it leaves the President with no other choice. Soon, a message is relayed to Wernher von Braun at his base in Huntsville, Alabama: the Army now has the all-clear to get its rocket ready for launch. But Werner has anticipated this moment. He knew the Vanguard was riddled with problems, and likely to fail. So he continued working, assuming he would eventually be given the green light.

On January 31st, 1958, the Army’s Jupiter C rocket takes off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Unlike the Vanguard, Werner’s Jupiter C succeeds in getting off the launch pad and sending the satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit.

With the launch of Explorer 1, America has officially entered the Space Age. And soon, the US government will pour billions of dollars into NASA, as the newly-created agency works tirelessly toward beating the Soviet Union to the next great milestone, and eventually, putting a human being on the moon, the culminating act of a Space Race that began when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I on October 4th, 1957.


Next onHistory Daily.October 5th, 1962. Dr. No, the first film in the James Bond series, is released after a long and troubled journey to the silver screen.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.