A Shift in the Cold War Balance
With the launch of Sputnik, The Soviets open a new Frontier and catch America off guard
But such problems were less challenging than getting high-quality work out of the Soviet industrial system. To put an object into space, the designer would need revolutionary electronics, and machine work done to exquisite tolerances. For funds, he would have to compete with projects like a single-stage nuclear-tipped missile, a submarine that launched nuclear-tipped missiles, improved nuclear bombs, and defensive radar and missile systems.
Compromise was unavoidable. Unable to produce the lighter materials and smaller payloads envisioned by American rocketeers, the Soviets were forced to build a much more powerful rocket, so it could lift extremely heavy weights. As for sophisticated satellite instruments, the Chief Designer had to build a simpler setup with radio equipment, batteries, and a cooling system, which would be sealed inside a 30-pound metal ball less than 2 feet in diameter.
But here he reached the end of all possible compromises. To protect the instruments from heat, the ball would have to be extremely reflective, so the sun's rays would bounce away. No flaws, smudges, or inconsistencies could be tolerated. He put his satellite on a stand, wrapped it in velvet, and announced that it should be made with the care that would go into an artist's masterwork.
By mid-September 1957, the first shiny ball was done, and workers had attached to it four long antennas, giving it the appearance of a spider. The satellite weighed about 180 pounds. It was formally named Prosteshyy Sputnik"simplest fellow traveler."
Besides choosing a place that could only be described as Godforsaken, the Soviets had gone to great lengths to hide the largest of its cosmodromesit covered 660 square milesfrom the outside world. Its very name, Baykonur, was a lie. The real Baykonur was 200 miles away. Although the treeless terrain was ideal for tracking missiles, it punished inhabitants with swirling dust, searing summer heat, and brutal winter cold.
On October 3, all was ready at Baykonur. The R-7 was moved by locomotive along a short railroad track from its hangar to the launchpad. Once it was set in place, huge metal struts that angled up from the pad to the rocket's flanks were raised and secured. Just before 6 a.m. on October 4, crews began to load the machine with liquid oxygen and kerosene, which, when combined and ignited, would provide 876,000 pounds of thrust.
When night fell, the countdown continued. The steel supports were drawn back from the rocket. As the Chief Designer watched and waited for signs that would force him to halt the countdown, he could only trust that his decades of sacrifice and suffering had been enough. But according to reliable sources, he had also performed a good-luck ritual: Hours before, he had stood beside his towering creation and relieved himself on it.
Around midnight, when the countdown reached zero, a young lieutenant pressed the button to ignite the R-7. Fire and smoke poured out of the roaring engine as the massive rocket lifted off and picked up speed. Racing into the night sky at roughly 18,000 miles per hour, it carried Sputnik on a roaring flame that could be seen by precious few as it arced over scattered farms and a vast desert, racing toward Siberia.