The Sputnik satellite was the world’s first satellite and began the ‘space age’ in earnest. Russia had worked for years on the spacecraft, but in secret. The US will deny it, but they knew about it at the same time the rest of the world did. The Soviet Union in typical fashion put their card close to their chest, refusing even to disclose the cost of making the vessel. Today there are plenty of estimates about the cost, but if Russia was asked they would deny it all.
It was the first artificial Earth Satellite launched into Earth’s orbit in 1957, though work on it had begun three years earlier. The size of Sputnik held everybody in awe. It was just 58 centimeters in diameter, a polished metal spherical in shape and had four antennae that extended from its small form.
What made this shuttle so special?
The aim of the antennae was to transmit signals to Earth. Also, it was visible from the Earth by the naked eye and the transmissions it relayed to Earth could be monitored by amateur radio operators the world over. Four months later, America’s Explorer took to orbit.
The Sputnik was revolutionary as its successful launch into orbit provided valuable information, despite its lack of sensors. The density of the atmosphere in space could be calculated depending on its drag, and its radio signals gave information about the ionosphere, which was largely unknown at this point. Sputnik managed speeds of up to 18, 000 miles per hour, and it took around 98 minutes to circle the entire orbit of the earth.
Four previous attempts by the Russian Government to launch a Satellite into orbit had fallen flat. Sputnik was attempt number 5. A year before its inception the Russians thought that we’re all set for launch. They had underestimated the complexities involved in doing a Satellite launch as the measurements of atmospheric density, solar wind, magnetic fields and ion composition took longer than expected.
The first planned rocket by the Russians was originally named ‘Object D,’ with the team to launch it headed by the Head Of State Commission Vasily Ryabikov. Object D had been a collaboration of various state agencies which had been assigned different tasks.
The USSR Academy of Sciences, for example, was to deal with general scientific issues and all the instruments, while the Ministry of Defense was responsible for the launch itself. Object D was a massive rocket, weighing 2200-3000 pounds, and was to carry around 440-650 pounds of scientific instruments. All preparations were complete by 1956. But by this time, it had become clear that issues arising from the R-7 engines and their instruments, which had a low specific impulse, the launch could not go ahead as planned. The launch was postponed, and the design of the rocket had to be modified to a simpler version, which was Sputnik. Object D did take to orbit eventually, but as Sputnik 3.
The Russian Government remains silent on the cost of launching Sputnik into orbit, but economists estimate it to be around half a million dollars. That is the cost of research, building and launching Sputnik. That was a huge amount in the 1950’s.
Sputnik stayed in orbit for three months and set a precedent for space exploration. It sets the foundation for the technology we enjoy today, including the Internet, mobile phone technology and also inspired a new generation of engineers, astronauts and rocket scientists.