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Sputnik model hanging in the National Air and Space Museum

Sputnik Model

Sputnik became Earth’s first artificial satellite when the Soviet Union launched the 83–kilogram (183–pound) aluminum sphere into space on October 4, 1957.

A single watt of power transmitted its distinctive “beep, beep, beep” as it flew around the world, an act that effectively established “Freedom of Space” — the principle that crossing national borders in space does not violate national airspace. Sputnik’s broadcast continued for 21 days. The satellite reentered the atmosphere in January 1958.

The Soviets had planned a more complex satellite, but when it was not ready, space planner Sergei Korolëv hurriedly built Sputnik. Its sphere had to be highly reflective to be tracked from Earth. Korolëv recognized the futuristic nature of Sputnik’s appearance. When he saw that a worker had not polished a backup sphere, he shouted at the man, “This ball will be exhibited in museums!”

Sputnik took most Americans by surprise and caused great anxiety. Soviet secrecy surrounding the project made strained Soviet resources appear to be deep, secret reserves. Sputnik’s launch marked Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchëv’s first use of rockets for propaganda purposes. It also demonstrated the capabilities of the Soviet Union’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R–7, which had only flown once before.

Lent by the Russian Academy of Sciences