What is Sputnik?

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  • Written By: D. Grosz
  • Edited By: L. S. Wynn
  • Images By: Waldemar Stach, Marcin Wichary, Mechanik, Axellwolf
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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Sputnik, Russian for "fellow traveler of earth," was an unmanned Soviet satellite that orbited the earth on 4 October 1957. The kerosene-powered Sputnik weighed 84 kg (184 pounds), traveled at over 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,000 miles per hour) and continued to orbit until 4 January 1958. Although it did little more than transmit a monotonous beep, the successful orbit of the beachball-sized satellite became a seminal moment in the 20th century.

Since there are currently thousands of satellites orbiting in the skies above us, may be difficult to understand how earth-shattering Sputnik actually was. To begin to understand it's impact, we need to consider the context in which it existed. In 1955, the U.S. announced plans to create a satellite program that eventually became the Vanguard project. The progress of the Vanguard program, however, was slow and frustrating. Just as basic rocket testing was yielding some results, the world was informed about the Sputnik successfully orbiting the earth. The United States space program was in its infancy, and the Soviets had not only launched but achieved earth orbit!


Much of the impact was due to the secrecy; although some members of the intelligence community knew of the advanced status of a Soviet satellite program, the general public was caught completely off-guard. To most Americans, the thought that the Soviets could launch something in space that could fly over anywhere in the world, was terribly unsettling and frightening. The "beep, beep" of the Sputnik added greatly to the fear of nuclear war and created a response in America that bordered on panic. The space and arms races that consumed much of the second half of the 20th century can be traced back to the Sputnik.

Soviet progress in space continued after Sputnik I. On 3 November 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik II carrying a test-dog named Laika. Sputnik III was launched in May 1958 and weighed almost 1,400 kilograms (3,000 pounds); it orbited for about two years and provided a wealth of information about the earth.


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Post 16

Kerosene? Maybe its rocket flew by kerosene, not Sputnik?

Post 13

@matthewc23 - Yes and no. They were able to retrieve one part of Sputnik and it is a rectangular, metal, key like device that was needed for it's operation.

The object they retrieved is not very big, it can fit in the palm of my hand, and it is on display for the public to see at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington DC.

I find it a little surprising and ironic that the Soviets were America's enemies for decades and Sputnik sent the Cold War into over drive, yet years down the road what is left of this symbol of Soviet superiority is in an American museum for the world to see.

Post 12

@Emilski - I cannot disagree with you. It does not necessarily matter what the satellite does, but the fact that it was the first one sent into orbit means that man had finally accomplished the impossible and sent a man made object up into the heavens and allowed it to circle the Earth.

I find this to be an incredible event in history, simply because it meant that man was finally able to travel into space.

Yes, it was only a small machine, but they figured out how to launch something into space and more importantly found that it was possible to do so. In only a few years both the Soviets and Americans were able to send men into space

and even to the Moon.

Today we have Sputnik to thank for space travel and for ideas of traveling to Mars and colonizing other planets.

One question I do have is it they ever managed to retrieve Sputnik for people to see?

Post 11

@TreeMan - You are absolutely correct. Sputnik ignited the Space Race, which evolved very fast in the few years after its launch.

By 1969 technology had advanced enough from Sputnik that they were able to put a man on the Moon and man could finally claim that they conquered another surface in space.

Although Sputnik did not provide much more than a beep what it did provide was a symbol for the Soviets and a claim that they were the first to send something into space and make it stay there.

A simple machine sent into space in 1957 was the beginning of the evolution of space travel that we see today and who knows where it will take us in the fast coming decades with the technology we have today.

Post 10

I will always remember learning about Sputnik in school and I still feel that I was one of the few people in my classroom in third grade to understand the significance of the event.

The launching of Sputnik is thought by some people to have sent the Cold War into overdrive if not started it.

Although I disagree with the people that say Sputnik started the Cold War it did cause the Space Race and was the beginning of NASA and the Soviet's attempts to put men in space in order to get the upper hand on their competition.

Post 9

But what is the use of it?

Post 4

Spuutnik is so hard to understand.

Post 3

Sputnik was a both a Soviet program that sent various robotic spaceships out to space, _and_ it also refers to the first of these ships that orbitted the earth.

Post 2

Anon12994 - The article says Sputnik was powered by kerosene.

Post 1

What was the Sputnik I powered by? Most satellites today are powered by solar batteries but the technology hadn't been developed when the Sputnik was launched.

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