Sixty years ago this month, the Space Age was born in an event that convulsed the West and threatened to alter the global balance of power. It's a story intrigue, politics, diplomacy and technology on the bleeding edge that pivots on the rivalry of two superpowers and of two men – one of whom was unaware of the other's existence. It's the story of the first manmade object to orbit the Earth, the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1.

The idea of an artificial satellite is one of the first and most basic steps when it comes to the conquest of space. It was the stuff of such visionaries as Russia's Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Germany's Hermann Oberth, America's Robert Goddard and more, who all contributed to the theory and technology of how to create outposts circling the Earth that would act as the first step to the stars.

For the first half of the 20th century, the primitive state of electronics and telemetry made most engineers assume that satellites would be large manned space stations and not a constellation of small, automated instrument packages like those we have today. But that didn't stop many enthusiasts from working on the first and most fundamental problem of how to put any object into orbit.

Surprisingly, this effort wasn't led by great universities, giant corporations, or major military powers. It was the provenance in the 1920s and '30s of amateur rocketry groups spearheaded by the American Rocket Society, Germany's Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR), Russia's Группа изучения реактивного движения (GIRD), and the British Interplanetary Society (BIS). Three of these societies carried out some of the earliest experiments with liquid fueled rockets, while the BIS, owing to Britain's strict laws regarding explosives, concentrated on the theoretical side. The alumni of these societies ended up building superweapons that became spaceships.

The legacy of the V-2

In 1932 the VfR, under the direction of Hermann Oberth, was already famous for its experiments in using liquid oxygen and gasoline in rockets that were staggeringly crude by today's standards, but revolutionary in their day. Under the restrictions of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the German Army wasn't allowed artillery, but it was allowed rockets, so the dreams of the VfR to build rockets powerful enough to reach the Moon started to attract military attention.

One person that the German Army was particularly interested in was a young student engineer named Wernher Von Braun. The son of an aristocratic family, his command of the new technology was such that the 20-year-old engineering student was recruited in 1932 by the Weimar and the succeeding Nazi governments to work on rocket development.

As leader of the German rocket effort based at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea coast, Von Braun's team of scientists and engineers eventually produced the A-4 rocket – more commonly known in the history books as the V-2. Powered by a liquid-fueled rocket engine burning alcohol and liquid oxygen, the V-2 weighed 27,000 lb (12,200 kg), had a range of 500 mi (800 km), and could reach speeds of 3,500 mph (5,600 km/h) to deliver a one-ton, high-explosive warhead.

It was the world's first ballistic missile, making its first flight in 1942, and was used to attack Britain, the Netherlands, and France beginning in September 1944. It was regarded by Adolph Hitler as the superweapon that would win the war for him, but it entered the war too late, was too expensive to produce, and didn't have enough destructive effect to be more than a terror weapon.

However, the V-2 did have a much more important role. Designed by Von Braun to be as much a prototype spacecraft as a weapon, it was the first manmade object to reach space on a suborbital flight on October 3, 1942. This makes the V-2 the ancestor of every space rocket in service today.

It was due to the V-2 that Sputnik was possible and it was the spark of the rivalry between Von Braun and his Soviet counterpart that would produce the Space Race and ultimately put a man on the Moon. Ironically, it was a rivalry that Von Braun was unaware of because his counterpart's identity was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Cold War. Even in the highest Kremlin circles he was known only as the Great Designer, but his name was Sergei Korolev, the father of Sputnik.

Von Braun and Korolev

In many ways, Wernher Von Braun and Sergei Pavlovich Korolev had a lot in common. Both roughly the same age, both from well-off families, both drawn into rocketry by amateur rocket societies led by pioneers in the field (Von Braun a member of the VfR and Korolev of GIRD), and both instrumental in early liquid rocket designs.

But there were many differences as well. Von Braun was very tall and broad shouldered with matinee idol good looks and a disturbing air of confidence, if not arrogance, as if he was always aware of exactly how much he was worth. He had an incredible memory for details as well as a frighteningly powerful grasp of rocket theory and orbital mechanics.

In addition, he possessed a sharp political mind and developed the polished skills of a salesman – something that he honed both to get the German government to back his dreams of one day piloting the first ship to the Moon, and to survive in the dangerous world of Nazi politics in which he threaded the line between arrest by the Gestapo and later accusations of being a war criminal.

Korolev was also a man aware from an early age of the tightrope he walked. He was a short, stocky man with the build of a wrestler and a shock of black hair that constantly needed slicking down to keep it in order. Slow of speech and volatile of character, he was an aeronautical engineer with a fascination for rocketry, and though he lacked Von Braun's genius, he was excellent at identifying talented people and was a remarkable organizer.

Unfortunately, where Von Braun went straight from rocket amateur to head of a major engineering program, Korolev spent four years in a Siberian gulag after being arrested in 1938 on false charges, like so many were in the days of Stalin's Great Terror. While the outbreak of the Second World War sent a flood of money and work to Von Braun, it saved Korolev's life. In 1942 he was transferred to a special minimum security prison to work on rocket research for the Communist Party.

Postwar and Paperclip

After and even before the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the Allies were already worried about the nature of the postwar world as the United States, Britain, France, and the USSR scrambled across the ruins of what had been the German Reich to secure as many Nazi technical secrets as possible before what was rapidly becoming the other side did.

As part of the US Army's Operation Paperclip, the Americans sent special teams into no-man's land to hunt down hidden caches of German research materials. One beat the Red Army to the main V-2 production facilities at Nordhausen in what would become the Soviet occupied zone and used 360 commandeered railcars and 16 ships to move everything they could out of reach of Stalin.

Meanwhile, Von Braun and his team, recognizing that Germany was finished, made off with the cream of the Peenemunde program using three trains and 100 cars and trucks. After hiding them, they holed up in a Bavarian ski resort and waited until a way was found to contact the Americans, who Von Braun figured were the best bet for restarting his agenda to conquer space.

At first, the US government was very interested in the German rocket men. They waved them through immigration with so little ceremony that several years later Von Braun and his team had to be bussed to Mexico so they could re-enter the United State legally five minutes later. However, when Japan surrendered in August 1945, that interest rapidly faded.

With the Axis defeated and relations with the Soviet Union deteriorating, the US Military became convinced that bombers and overseas bases were the key to keeping the Communists in check. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations, along with the newly created Air Force, had doubts about rockets, seeing them as crank Buck Rogers gadgets that couldn't compare to the firepower of a heavy bomber equipped with nuclear weapons.

Von Braun and his team were effectively dumped in Fort Bliss, Texas. With the defeat of Japan, the attitude of the US government was more one of keeping the German rocket scientists and their expertise on ice and out of the hands of the Soviets. They were told to play with their recovered V-2s and conduct high altitude flights, but forget about weapons or space travel.

Meanwhile Sergei Korolev, now "rehabilitated", was made a Red Army colonel and sent to Germany on the USSR's own version of Paperclip. At first, the task seemed hopeless because the Americans had Von Braun, his team, his records, hundreds of V-2s, and innumerable spare parts. But there were still a few rockets left and the Americans had overlooked many experimental components that were hidden away in mines, barns, and various ruins.

More importantly, the Red Army rounded up hundreds of low-level technicians. These men didn't have any knowledge of how the V-2 worked, but they did understand the individual components and systems they were tasked with building and maintaining.

With these prizes in tow, Korolev returned to Russia in 1946, where he was made the head of the new OKB Special Design Bureau and set to work reverse engineering the V-2. As he did so, like Von Braun, Korolev was thinking about how this could one day be used to travel into space.

The Cold War sets in

For Von Braun and Korolev, the years from 1945 and 1950 were a dead end and might have signaled the end of both their careers, but once again conflict changed the tide.

As the Cold War between East and West took hold, the world was gripped by increasing fears of nuclear war and the West had to deal with real and imagined communist infiltration. Both of the rocket engineers were sidelined on either side of the Iron Curtain, left to shoot off surplus V-2 missiles in the middle of nowhere. But this changed in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. Within three weeks, Von Braun was tasked with starting work on the Redstone missile as the United States embarked on a strategy of massive retaliation to deter communist aggression.

Von Braun and his team were liberated from the dust of Fort Bliss and moved to the more pleasant Huntsville, Alabama, for their new appointment to the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) under Major General John Medaris. Now enjoying much looser security and even allowed to become US citizens, the team set to work building new tactical ballistic missiles for the Army.

Their first achievement was the Redstone missile – an advanced version of the V-2 that could carry a 3.5-megaton nuclear warhead a distance of 201 miles (323 km). By 1956, Von Braun had developed the three-stage Jupiter C rocket and he and Medaris said they could launch a satellite any time they could fit a fourth stage. The White house took them seriously enough to appoint two observers to prevent any "accidents" from happening during test flights.

But for the Pentagon, missiles were a sideshow. US strategy in those days was based on bomber supremacy using a large and highly advanced heavy bomber force like the B-52 carrying lethal megaton payloads from North America to the heart of the Soviet Empire. Rockets, in this view were simply too complicated and not effective enough to consider.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the massive US and Allied build up of strategic bomber forces had an unexpected effect. The Western strategy was designed to counter the Soviet threat as it presented itself, but in an age when the interior of another hostile country was still as unknown as the far side of the Moon, this presentation was based on a lot of strange faith in Kremlin honesty.

The Russians have had a taste for combining boast and bluff that goes back to the days of Catherine the Great, and the Cold War had many classic examples of this tendency.

In US Senate hearings led by Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, it was declared that the USSR had more long-range bombers than the Americans, and the by 1958 they'd field 400 Myasishchev M-4 Molot "Bison" bombers, with 300 Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" bombers fielded by 1958. But this was anything but the truth. In reality, the Soviets had a small bomber fleet based on the Tupolev Tu4 – a reverse engineered Boeing B-29 with a range of only 2,900 mi (4,600 km) and no air refueling capability. It couldn't attack the US mainland without resorting to one-way missions ending in their crews bailing out over North America after delivering their bombs.

Any bomber up to the job was still many years away and the USSR would only manage to build 85 of the projected 700 bombers predicted by US intelligence. Meanwhile, the US Air Force would consist of 1,769 heavy bombers.

So how did the Soviets generate this impression of superiority? By flying wave after wave of advanced bombers over the Moscow crowd during the annual display of military might on May Day. But these "waves" were the same bombers flying circles over the capital over and over again.

Kruschev gets hooked on satellites

Bluff has its place in the scheme of things, but it doesn't win wars and, for those in the know, it doesn't make political situations any the less precarious. Such was the case with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. After denouncing his late predecessor Stalin as a tyrant and murderer, Khrushchev spent years dealing with uprisings against Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, chilling relations with communist China, and even a failed coup at home.

Worse, he had to find some way to quickly and, given the state of the Soviet economy, cheaply counter the Western strategic advantages before NATO twigged to his bluffs. His favored idea was to forget about bombers and turn to missiles as a cheaper alternative to bridge the bomber gap.

A man of little or no education, Kruschev knew little about missiles, but he reasoned that most of the costs of building them are up front in research and development. After that, it should be possible to mass produce them. In addition, H-bombs would make them practical as weapons because, in combination, far fewer missiles than bombers would be needed. When he asked his advisors how many, he was told that only five would be enough to defeat England and a couple of dozen could take out the United States.

It was here that Korolev comes back into the picture. He had been assigned the job of turning the V-2 into a practical missile capable of reaching New York and Chicago and his team's efforts were bearing fruit.

The first was the R-1, which was a replica of the V-2 built by press-ganged German technicians. This was followed by the R-2 in 1950. This half-German, half-Russian design looked like a lengthened V-2 and didn't have much more range or accuracy. However, it did teach Korolev and his team how to make a stronger rocket that could handle greater stresses without proportionally greater weight.

Next came the R-5, which was entirely Russian built, weighed a ton less than previous marks, and managed to reach space on a regular basis on test flights. Unlike the V-2, it had small stabilizer fins run by servomotors. In addition, it incorporated the modern step of making the fuselage into the wall of the propellant tanks for the RD-103 engine, which punched out 44 tons of thrust and pushed the R-5 at twice the speed of the V-2. Its maximum range was 745 miles (1,200 km) with an 80-kt-yield nuclear warhead.

But Korolev's crowning achievement was the R-7. Ten times the size of the R-5 with five boosters producing 1 million lb of thrust, it boasted a range of over 5,000 miles (8,000 km) and speed of over 16,000 mph (26,000 km/h). Unlike the stages of Western rockets, which are stacked on top of the other, the first stage consisted of four rockets bundled together around a central core to share the lift-off load and to simplify the problems of syncing the stage firings by feeding all the combustion chambers of the kerosene-burning RD-107 engine from a single turbo pump. This gave the R-7 the ungainly hoop-skirt look that Russian boosters maintain to this day.

Then, on December 17, 1954, Korolev proposed a developmental plan for an artificial satellite to Minister of Defence Industry Dimitri Ustinov. This didn't go anywhere until January 30, 1956, when the Council of Ministers approved work on an artificial Earth-orbiting satellite to launch in 1957. But this was all still a paper project. Without support at the highest level, the satellite project would go nowhere.

The International Geophysical Year

One of the key factors that influenced this shift of interest to satellites by the usually skeptical Kremlin was the announcement in 1955 of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Slated to start on July 1, 1957, IGY was a global effort to make an extensive study of the Earth. As part of this, on July 29, 1955, US President Dwight Eisenhower announced the United States would launch an artificial satellite sometime during the year.

This proposed display of American technological superiority prompted concern in the Kremlin to the point where the Politburo gave its approval for a Soviet satellite, but despite public pronouncements even by the Soviet Academy of Science, the satellite program was still so unpopular in some circles that only the approval of the General Secretary of the Communist Party could guarantee the go ahead. That meant Khrushchev.

This approval came shortly after a presentation to Khrushchev in February 1956, when Korolev claimed that the R-7 was nearly ready to fly and would very soon be a practical ICBM weapon. In fact, the rocket was a full-scale mock up and the real work hadn't even begun yet. But the Great Designer was able to sell Kruschev on backing his project to place a satellite into orbit as a propaganda coup to introduce the new missile. Unfortunately, he also said he could do it by January 1957 and Khrushchev believed him so strongly that he started canceling rafts of military building programs.

To get the R-7 to work as either an ICBM or a satellite launcher, considerable alterations were needed, like gimballing the engines for steering; radar guidance systems to back up the gyros; and a new, blunted nose cone made of silica, asbestos, and textalyte to protect returning warheads when they hit the atmosphere, which caused heated arguments between Korolev and his subordinates. Despite feverish efforts, the January deadline came and went, as did the new March schedule.

As it was, after five failures, the first successful flight of the R-7 rocket wasn't until August 21, 1957, when the one few from the Tyura-Tam (later Baikonur) rocket field to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Kamchatka. However, work on the new nose cone was far behind schedule.

This was followed by a second successful launch on September 7, 1957. Successful, that is, from a satellite launch point of view, because the reentry vehicle broke up. However, Korolev got the green light for the launch of the "simple satellite" or "prostreishy sputnik" (PS-1), delaying further ICBM tests – a move that drew fierce opposition in official circles.

Sputnik 1

The original satellite, which later became Sputnik 3, was a massive device that could carry out a number of scientific experiments. These included studies of the upper atmosphere, measuring magnetic fields and cosmic rays, recording UV and X-ray spectra, and even weighing the ion charge built up by the spacecraft. However, there were too many problems to solve and the original spacecraft was too heavy, so to get into space before the Americans, something lighter and simpler was needed.

The answer was PS-1, which carried no instruments and was equipped with only a radio transmitter and a simple heat regulating system better known in layman's terms as a fan. It wasn't large. Only 23 in (58 cm) in diameter and weighing 184 lb (83 kg) with two identical transmitters powered by three silver-zinc batteries designed to provide power for two weeks.

Because PS-1 was so small, Korolev insisted that it be a sphere trailing a four radio antennae 7.8 to 9.5 ft (2.4 to 2.9 m) long. It was made out of highly polished aluminum-magnesium-titanium AMG6T alloy to reflect the sun, making it easier to see from the ground at night. It was even kept swaddled in black velvet on a special stand to preserve its luster. Korolev feared that the radio transmitter might fail, so he demanded more than one backup to make sure people knew it was passing overhead. He even had the top stage of the rocket equipped with reflectors just in case.

Due to the primitive electronics used in the transmitter, PS-1 consisted of a pressurized inner sphere filled with nitrogen and an outer sphere to reflect away sunlight and keep the interior temperature down to about 68° F (20° C). The 1-watt, 7.7-lb (3.5-kg ) radio transmitting unit inside operated on frequencies of 20.005 and 40.002 MHz. It transmitted in 0.3 second pulses with pauses of the same duration filled by pulses on the second frequency.

The purpose of the transmissions was partly for tracking, but mainly so its signal could be picked up by ham radio operators to prove the satellite really was orbiting the Earth and to prevent cover ups by Western governments. One clever bit was how the transmitter was keyed to send back interior temperature data. If it got too hot, the fan turned on to circulate the air and the duration of the pulses sped up. If it got too cold, they slowed down. If a micrometeor holed the sphere, a different pulse was transmitted.

Now the way was clear to send PS-1 on its journey. On September 22, 1957, a modified R-7 rocket arrived at the launch site. It weighed 8 tons less than the ICBM version because it was stripped of the inertial guidance system and other gear needed to support a warhead launch.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing. There were constant fears that the Americans would launch their IGY satellite at any time. If that happened, PS-1 would be relegated to a footnote in the history books.

Launching the first moon

On October 3, 1957, at the future Baikonur Cosmodrome there was a nail-biting display as the complex countdown for launching the experimental rocket proceeded. Tapes rolled, rocket feed lines were flushed with nitrogen, liquid oxygen lines were checked for leaks that were sealed by peeing on them, valves were closed and hoses disconnected as pressure built up in the propellant tanks.

Then the mast was retracted and the rocket switched to internal power. Ground stations along the line of flight were alerted. At 10:28 pm, the engines were started and the command for ignition given. The R-7 was lost in a chaos of fire and smoke. After a few seconds, full thrust was ordered. The hold downs fell back and the rocket rose slowly into the air, gaining speed as it gained altitude. It wasn't a perfect launch. One booster was malfunctioning, but Sputnik 1 was still on course.

At 116 seconds, the four side boosters jettisoned, leaving only the center stack. The main engine then cut out at 295 seconds – one second early and hasty calculations were made to determine if PS-1 would reach orbit. It would, but five miles (8 km) lower than predicted. Twenty seconds later, a spring activated and pushed the fairing away and the satellite behind it.

PS-1, Sputnik 1, was now the first manmade object ever to reach orbit.

But there was very little celebration. Though the tracking stations confirmed the path of Sputnik, once it left Siberia there was no way to follow the satellite as it traveled over the Pacific Ocean. Korolev and his team had to wait 90 minutes until the radio signal from the spacecraft was acquired as it looped back around the Earth on its first orbit.

The Sputnik moment

The launch sent a shockwave around the world. Shortly after the successful orbit was confirmed, Moscow radio released the news that the USSR had placed a satellite into orbit and Soviet spokesmen at various embassies confirmed it. Russian news agency TASS said that this was only the first and more would follow in short order. No details about the launcher or the satellite were released, but its orbital parameters were given as well as the frequencies of its radio transmitters.

At 8:07 pm EST, an RCA receiving station in Riverhead, New York picked up the signal. This was relayed to NBC and broadcast nationwide, then worldwide.

The popular view of the day of Sputnik is that the US was caught off guard, but this was far from the case. President Eisenhower and his staff weren't shocked by anything other than the timing and the size of the satellite, which was so large that the suspicion was that someone had moved a decimal point. Sputnik-1 tipped the scales at 180 lb. Its US competitor was only about 18 lb (8.1 kg).

US intelligence had long known about the Russian satellite project. Rumors had been circulating since IGY was announced and secret U2 flights were watching the R-7 rocket tests. The CIA was already giving warnings in early 1957, the Soviets had boasted of their previous R-7 launch and Russian scientists had given interviews in Western magazines that hinted at a satellite program. In addition, shortly before the launch, the tracking details and radio frequency were released.

Then there was the fact that Eisenhower was a retired general with a firm grasp of the difference between a test and an operational weapon. If anything, the flight of Sputnik 1 made it harder for the Soviets to object to his space ambitions – he saw it as a gain.

Where he went wrong was in drastically misjudging the political and diplomatic impact of that little beeping ball. To the general public and governments around the world, Sputnik was more than a surprise, it was a shock on the order of finding a Mongol horde in one's bath tub. No one knew what Sputnik was for or what it could do. Even at an expert level, the military use of space was still poorly understood, so gauging the implications was difficult.

What they did know was that the US was now literally in the front lines of World War III because where a satellite could go, a nuclear warhead could follow. It didn't help that journalists who had no technical or scientific background were now plunged into a story without any knowledge of rocketry or orbital mechanics. One magazine was even poised to send a team to any spot on the globe to get a look at Sputnik flying overhead, money no object. Never mind that it would come to them.

Small wonder that the days following its launch were rife with speculation. Were the signals code? Was it a surveillance satellite? A weapon that could go off at any time? Was it sending messages to spies or vice versa? Even flying saucer reports skyrocketed. One minister told the Washington Post that it heralded the Second Coming, while atheists, especially behind the Iron Curtain, asserted that it was proof that God did not exist.

The only concrete information came from tracking the satellite. A call went out to ham radio operators and tens of thousands of amateurs tuned in, joined by private and government scientific and military agencies. The Russians even asked for copies of tape recordings, which would help in their own tracking and spacecraft status efforts.

On official lines, Canada's Newbrook Observatory was the North American facility to photograph Sputnik. At Jodrell Bank in England, the world's then-largest radio telescope was pressed into service to track the satellite. It was a harbinger of the observatory's Cold War career as a covert space tracking station.

One ironic twist was that Operation Moonwatch, which was set up to track IGY satellites, provided stacks of valuable orbital data using spotting techniques developed to track bombers during the Second World War and adapted for satellite work. Teams of volunteers at 150 stations around the world used low-power telescopes that looked down on a flat tabletop mirror, allowing the users to watch for long hours without neck strain.

In short order, the orbit of Sputnik was worked out. It was circling the Earth every 96.2 minutes at an altitude between 134 miles (215 km) and 583 miles (939 km) and an angle of 65.1° relative to the equator. However, the orbit was so low that atmospheric friction combined with then-unknown variations in the Earth's gravitational pull were causing Sputnik to lose altitude at a measurable rate. This caused Korolev concern because if it hit the atmosphere too soon, it would displease his masters and he would face reprisals. However, calculations indicated that Sputnik had a life of about two or three months, so the Great Designer was spared an unscheduled trip back to Siberia.

All this concern about Sputnik's condition kept both Korolev and Kruschev from realizing the global impact of their achievement until almost 48 hours after the event. They were among the last to find out about the ruckus they'd made.

The USSR ascendant

The effect was beyond simply a blow to public morale and hysterical headlines. A US intelligence report indicated that world opinion regarded the USSR as now technologically superior to the West, a global concern about a shift in the balance of power, a feeling that Soviet propaganda was now more than bluster, and that friendly countries saw the US power as diminished.

Sergei Korolev was showered with medals and honors, as were his team, but his existence was still top secret and no one could speak of his rewards until many years in the future. However, the Chief Designer was now top dog in the Soviet bureaucracy and could, for the moment, command whatever he wanted. Khrushchev became boastful and claimed that Korolev could double the size of the satellite, that the ICBM version could strike any point on Earth, and the R-7 would be manufactured "like sausages."

In America, the imperative was to do something. Soon there were demands in the press and in Congress for a massive US military build up. The Soviet leap forward was blamed on America's poor educational system and sweeping reforms from new curricula to college loans were implemented. There was even a push to promote amateur rocketry as a hobby.

Eisenhower's decision was to play down Sputnik, ignore the hysteria and propaganda, and begin a series of televised White House addresses designed to calm things down. He even went so far as to say that this was really a German success that had nothing to do with Soviet engineering, and that the US wasn't in any sort of race for space. In private conversations, Eisenhower said that he couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.

But one person who wouldn't calm down was Von Braun, who was fit to be tied. The success of Sputnik in the face of all the roadblocks placed in his way infuriated him. "For God's sake cut us loose and let us do something," he said to the US Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy. "We have the hardware on the shelf."

"We can put up a satellite in sixty days, Mr. McElroy," he went on to say. "Just give us the green light and sixty days."

Sputnik 2 and Laika

Then on November 3, 1957, all hell broke loose. With the incredible success of Sputnik 1, Kruschev was in no mood to lose the momentum and he ordered Korolov to find out if it was possible to put up a second satellite by November 7 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution that brought the communists to power. Instead of demurring, Korolev raised the stakes by suggesting that Sputnik 2 should carry a passenger – a test animal using the same hermetically-sealed compartments used to shoot dogs to high altitudes on sounding rockets.

If Sputnik 1 was developed under pressure, Sputnik 2 was the definition of a rush job, with work being done from crude sketches and using off-the-shelf parts. Questions were asked and answered on the fly and even the dog chosen for the flight was a stray selected almost as an afterthought from 10 candidates. But Korolev knew that failure would seal his fate as certainly as if Sputnik 1 had blown up on the pad.

The result was a 7.79-ton monster of a satellite with much of the weight in the top booster stage, which was welded to the cone-shaped 13-ft-high (4-m) animal-carrying capsule because there wasn't time to build a deployment mechanism. Inside was Laika (meaning "Barker") a 13-lb mutt terrier bitch, along with separate compartments for radio transmitters, telemetry, temperature regulators, solar radiation monitors, and biological monitors for the passenger. There was also a system to dispense water and gelatinized treats for the passenger to eat.

On November 3, atop a modified R-7 similar to the one that launched Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2 lifted off from Baikonur at 5:30 pm Moscow time (02:30:00 UTC), sending it into a 140 × 1,038 mile (225 × 1,671 km) orbit at a 65° inclination, circling the Earth once every 104 minutes. As with the previous flight, tracking was difficult, but was eventually confirmed when the Soviets intercepted data from an American tracking station in Perth, Australia that picked up telemetry from the bio monitors.

According to the instruments, Laika's heart rate spiked during lift off, but soon returned to normal. For many years, the Soviets claimed that she survived a week in space before being put to sleep humanely, but post-Cold War records show that the temperature regulating system failed soon after launch and Laika died a slow and unpleasant death as temperatures rose to 43° C (109° F) in the capsule over the next four days. Laika is believed to have lost consciousness within hours of lift off and all signs of life ended by November 6. On November 10, the batteries ran out and Sputnik 2 ceased to function.

In the United States, the flight of a dog-carrying satellite that weighed tons was like the proverbial hitting the fan. Now even the government went into an all-out panic as it looked as if America really was falling far behind the Soviets in missile and space technology. Indeed, it seemed as if the entire US defense strategy was suddenly useless and the heartland was wide open to a nuclear attack against which there was no defense. There was talk in official circles of the USSR having 1,500 ICBMs at the ready. The President's own science advisory committee was even pushing for a crash nuclear bomb shelter program.

No less than CBS pundit Edward Murrow declared that this was a sign that the United States faced surrender in the Cold War and must negotiate the best terms it could with the Soviets.

Needless to say, the Soviets did nothing to allay these fears. TASS and newspaper Pravda played up Laika and her good health, spruiking the story that that after 10 days the first space traveler would be humanely put to sleep.

But as a propaganda exercise it wasn't a complete success, with animal lovers in the West demanding that Laika be rescued from her orbital prison. This wasn't something the Soviets could do and they were reduced to vague statements about parachutes.

Yet the bottom line was that the US was in a perceived corner and had to respond decisively. Eisenhower had bet on keeping calm and carrying on, only to blunder into a crisis. America had no choice but to send up a satellite of its own, and quickly.

Von Braun in the wings

Where was Von Braun during all this? Throughout the 1950s, he had been working nonstop as an evangelist for not only putting a satellite into space, but also a manned station that would act as a jumping off point for missions to set up outposts on the Moon and Mars – missions he had every intention of joining.

He not only lobbied his Army superiors, but members of Congress and private industry. He gave endless speeches and wrote articles for magazines like Collier's and Popular Science. He wrote books, a novel about a trip to Mars, and even helped Walt Disney produce a trilogy of color television documentaries outlining his vision. By 1957, he was a minor celebrity.

And the result? He was stuck in charge of an Army rocket project that was so advanced that he had been expressly ordered not to send a satellite into orbit. Now the Russians had stolen the march and the rocket engineer was furious.

Worse, even after the humiliation of Sputnik 2, the US government still refused to turn to him, arguably the world's most advanced expert on space flight, for input on how to counter the Soviet space triumphs. The best he could manage was a clearance to prepare to launch, but not actually do so. Instead, Eisenhower put ideology before engineering in a US$110 million gamble by backing a horse that was never bred to race. That horse was Vanguard.

Vanguard's spectacular failure

Project Vanguard was the name for the United States' much publicized rocket and satellite program that placed the first instrument package into orbit for the IGY. Eisenhower was absolutely determined that the US space program, such as it was, must be entirely peaceful and without a taint of military, much less Nazi, connections. First announced in 1955 and hardly ever out of the newspapers and magazines afterwards, its peace angle was so front and center that a French newspaper described it as a "virtuous satellite."

Not that Eisenhower was entirely motivated by virtue. The President was aware that it was only a matter of time before one of the American top secret U2 spy planes were shot down and Eisenhower was determined to retire the aircraft in favor of an orbiting spy platform called the WS-117. Unfortunately, there was no legal precedent for flying a satellite over another country's territory and Eisenhower was worried that using a military vehicle or satellite for the first orbital mission would give the Soviets the pretext to object or even shoot down the orbiter, so he wanted the first satellite to be squeaky clean from a diplomatic point of view.

It began life as the US Navy proposal based on the Viking sounding rocket project, but development was handed over to a civilian think tank tasked with essentially reinventing the wheel. The 20-lb (9-kg) Vanguard satellite would be a miniature miracle of electronics, while the launcher would be the most advanced ever designed, incorporating all manner of innovations.

But problems surfaced almost as soon as the project began. The team was inexperienced and faced a fatal mixture of high demands, low budgets, and a tight timetable that kept slipping away. Costs skyrocketed (pardon the pun) and relations between the private contractors and government overseers quickly soured and communications broke down so much that even fundamental decisions like changing the satellite's shape from a cylinder to a sphere weren't properly discussed.

Vanguard's misfortunes really began after Sputnik 2. Before its launch the US was never in an official race with the Soviets. Then White house press secretary Jim Hagerty made a public announcement in which he showed a blatant ignorance of how rocket programs work. Vanguard was scheduled for a rocket test in December, 1957, which was intended to see if all the new components worked together properly. But Hagerty said flat out that the December test was going to launch America's first satellite into orbit.

Hagerty had over promised and flung the door open wide to the world's news media to cover the supposed launch that would be the riposte to Sputnik. Von Braun and Medaris saw it as nothing less than a disaster in the making.

The day of reckoning was December 6, 1957 and the place was the Cape Canaveral Missile Annex, Florida, which later became the famous NASA spaceport from where the Apollo missions left Earth for the Moon. It was not a day to inspire optimism and 30 mph (48 km/h) wind gusts had already delayed the first launch date. At least, that was the official answer. In reality, there was a lot more wrong. The second stage had never flown and there were technical problems that included a liquid oxygen valve freezing shut.

Despite misgivings even by project engineers and with the whole world watching, the countdown commenced. At 11:44:35 am EST, the main engine fired and the needle-like Vanguard launcher lifted slowly off the pad for about two seconds. Then it started to slide back down. The first stage engine caught fire. It fell back on the pad. The fuel tanks ruptured. An instant later, the vehicle exploded.

Then, as the wreckage of the launcher toppled into its own inferno, the nosecone broke apart and the grapefruit-sized vanguard satellite rolled off onto the tarmac, beeping away at no one in particular as it activated. It now resides in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Not surprisingly, the press were not kind to the Vanguard disaster. In vent up frustration, headlines in the US and Europe dubbed Vanguard "Flopnik," "Puffnik," "Kaputnik," and "Stayputnik." It was all unfair, given that such launches usually begin with a couple of firework displays before flying successfully, and Vanguard did go on to be a success with many firsts and groundbreaking discoveries, but on that December day, it was a national humiliation.

Meanwhile, Von Braun had an ace in his hip pocket – the Explorer satellite program that he had been pushing unsuccessfully since 1954 was now revived to take on Sputnik.

Explorer 1 puts the US back on track

Explorer began life as the US Army's Orbiter project that was one of Vanguard's rivals in the choice for America's IGY satellite. Not only was Orbiter scrubbed in 1955, but the intervening two years had not been kind to Von Braun. Due to policy shifts, the US Army's ABMA was restricted to only developing tactical missiles and carrying out test shots to develop heat-resistant warhead casings. It was not allowed to work on ICBMs and certainly not space launchers, whatever Von Braun said he could do.

Explorer's launcher was based on the US Army's Jupiter C rocket, which was itself an advanced version of the Redstone and both direct descendants of the V-2. Since the Jupiter C was being used for nose cone tests, it wasn't bound by the rule limiting Army missiles to a range of 200 miles (320 km) and it could reach 1,200 miles (1,900 km) with a full payload.

What few noticed is that the upper stages were those from the old cancelled Orbiter project from 1955. After Sputnik, the US government claimed that Explorer was a crash program by the Army to catch up with the Soviets. In fact, it was an elaborate deception by Von Braun and his team to pull the wool over the eyes of their superiors. Far from abandoning their work on satellites when ordered, Von Braun and Medaris ran an unofficial side program. They arranged to have some Jupiter C rockets put away for "storage tests" in 1956 and, prior to the launch of Sputnik, a new fourth stage and satellite payload were put together with the help of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. To protect it from official eyes, one of the team kept details of Explorer hidden in the boot of his car.

When Von Braun said he could get the bird up in 60 days, he wasn't kidding. He was as ready to go as one could be with pioneering technology. However, he hadn't counted on the stubbornness of the Eisenhower administration, which still backed Vanguard.

Fed up, Medaris and Von Braun both threatened to resign. They were soon followed by most of Von Braun's team. Imagine a mass walkout at NASA on the eve of Apollo 11 – it had that sort of impact. The President still clung to his peaceful space program and insisted that Von Braun's Explorer could only launch if the next Vanguard test in January was a failure. To Von Braun, that meant Explorer would certainly launch.

There was still a lot of work to do. In only 84 days after the program restarted, the Explorer satellite needed to be completed after being modified to carry some of Vanguard's experiments. The Jupiter C, now renamed Juno to make it seem less warlike, also needed modification to carry the payload. And everything needed to be tested, tested, and retested.

The American Moon

Designed under the direction of Dr William H Pickering, Explorer 1 was smaller than Sputnik 1, though larger than Vanguard. It weighed only 30.80 lb (13.37 kg) with 18.3 lb (8.3 kg) of scientific instruments. The front of the 6-in-wide (15.2-cm), 81-in-long (205.1 cm) cylindrical, rocket-like satellite held the instruments and the aft section the fourth stage rocket motor to place it into its final orbit. To stabilize itself, Explorer spun on its short axis 750 times per minute, which kept its two wire whip antennae taut for its 60-milliwatt and 10-milliwatt transmitters.

Simplicity was the watchword, but a lot could still be packed in thanks to the new germanium and silicon transistors, and no pressure vessel was needed to protect the electronics. Power was provided by 60-Watt mercury batteries rated for 105 days.

Even the decoration on the satellite was functional. The skin was rolled and sandblasted stainless steel with alternating white and green stripes designed to keep the interior at an even temperature. Inside was a cosmic ray detector, a real-time instrument relay in lieu of a tape recorder, micrometeoroid detector, temperature sensors, and a microphone to listen for the impact of cosmic dust.

To prevent a repeat of the Vanguard disaster and its very public fallout, General Medaris restricted access to the launch site. No VIPs were invited and the press was not allowed in, with information restricted to the Pentagon and the National Security Council. The four stages were moved to Cape Canaveral from ABMA's headquarters in Huntsville in utmost secrecy and assembled under the cover that they were another classified missile test. Once assembled, the rocket was fueled with hydyne and liquid oxygen to provide the first stage with 83,000 lb of thrust for 155 seconds. The top stages were spun before lift off to make sure the multiple rockets would provide even thrust.

Meanwhile, Von Braun flew reluctantly to Washington to handle the release of the news of the launch, leaving Florida operations in the hands of Dr Kurt Debus, who had been with Von Braun since the V-2 days. It was his job to make sure the rocket was properly assembled and the spinning upper stages adjusted so they wouldn't wobble in flight. Meanwhile, another Peenemunde alumnus, Ernst Stuhlinger carried out the final complex trajectory calculations using a slide rule – a task he would need to do again while the tracking data came in. It was his job to make sure the stages fired on time and the payload stayed on course.

All of these preparations took place within viewing distance of the next Vanguard launch attempt. The two teams of scientists and engineers watched one another's preparations with interest and trepidation. Only if Vanguard didn't launch would Explorer fly. If Vanguard did, the Von Braun team could go home.

On January 26, 1958, things went wrong for Vanguard. Twice the countdown was stopped within seconds of ignition due to technical glitches. Then the worst happened. The second stage used a highly volatile, corrosive propellant that could only stay in the tanks for so long. Finally, so long became too long and the propellant ate through a tank, spraying a technician. The stage would have to be completely dismantled and the launch was scrubbed.

With the way clear, the Explorer team made its final preparations. The weather was closely watched. Already they'd had to drain the tanks more than once due to high winds. Despite Medaris's attempts, journalists were camped at the site and the Air Force had to bargain with them to play down the rivalry and not file any advance stories.

Then on January 31. 1958, at 10:48 pm EST, under a blaze of searchlights, Debus overrode a last second request to hold and Juno fired its engines. In two minutes, it vanished from sight. In six minutes and 52 seconds, tracking indicated the Explorer 1 was in orbit – maybe.

Now it was Von Braun's turn to go through what Korolev had the previous October. For 90 minutes, he and the rest of the team sat by the telephone and teletype drinking coffee and eating pencils as they waited for a tracking station somewhere to pick up the signal.

At 106 minutes, worry started to set in. Explorer was overdue. Did it actually reach orbit? Was the satellite inoperative? Then came the word from the California tracking station that made history, "Goldstone has the bird."

Explorer was in orbit. Perigee 358 km (222 mi), apogee 2,550 km (1,580 mi), period 114.8 minutes. At 12:44 am on February 1, President Eisenhower, who was recovering from a minor stroke in Augusta, Georgia was informed. At 1:30 am ET in the Great Hall at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, the world was told. It wasn't the end of a story, but the start of a much bigger one.

First steps to the stars

Of the first three satellites sent into orbit, nothing remains to mark their careers. All contact was lost with Sputnik 1 on October 26, 1957 and it burned up in the Earth's atmosphere on January 4, 1958. Sputnik 2 burned up on April 14, 1958 over the Caribbean, and Explorer 1 went dead on May 23, 1958, but stayed up until March 31, 1970. During its brief active life, Explorer 1 made a number of scientific finds – the most important of which was the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts that encircle the Earth.

In a bit of poetic justice, it was Vanguard that had the last laugh. On March 17, 1958, Vanguard 1 finally reached orbit. The first solar-powered satellite, the 3-lb (1.4-kg) Vanguard that was dismissively called "the grapefruit satellite" is still in orbit. It's the oldest surviving satellite and will remain such for another 2,000 years.

But the Sputnik moment was about more than hunks of metal in space. It changed geopolitics and made the nuclear stand off that much more dangerous, as more effective missiles came online in large numbers. On the plus side, Eisenhower did get the freedom to navigate space that he wanted and within a few years the US Corona project sent up its first spy satellite, giving the West an advantage in arms negotiations.

To preserve the idea of the peaceful exploration of space, the Eisenhower administration created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to oversee the civilian space program. This peaceful organization ironically became the West's spearhead as it took on the USSR in outer space.

Sputnik sparked off the Space Race that saw the US and the USSR playing a decade-long game of tit-for-tat with achievements that included the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first probes to other planets, and the pinnacle of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969.

One unexpected result of Sputnik was the invention of GPS navigators. On the night of Sputnik 1, researchers William Guier and George Wiefenbach at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at John Hopkins University figured out how to track the Russian satellite. Since the geographic position of APL was known, then by calculating the Doppler effect on the Sputnik signal, it should be possible to calculate its orbit with great accuracy.

So far so good, but when Guier and Wiefenbach told Frank McClure of APL, he pointed out that the calculations worked in reverse. If you knew the orbit of Sputnik, you could calculate the position of APL. This insight eventually led to our modern satellite navigation systems.

As for the two men behind the first satellites, Wernher Von Braun became an American hero, joined NASA in 1960, and went on to direct the Marshall Space Flight Center where he was the architect of the giant Saturn V booster that lifted the Apollo and Skylab missions. He passed away in 1977, still advocating for Mars missions and the Space Shuttle, just as the details of his Nazi past began to become public knowledge.

Sergei Korolev carried on as the secret head of the Soviet space program, but his health was severely impacted by his years in the gulag. He died in 1966 at the age of 59 from complications after routine surgery, but it would be more accurate to say he worked himself to death. It could be argued his passing put paid to the USSR's chances in the Space Race as rocket development fell into lesser hands. On July 3, 1969, the Soviet version of the Saturn V, the N-1, failed on lift off during a test flight, resulting in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and the end of any attempt by the Soviets to make a manned lunar landing.

The flight of Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2, and Explorer 1 are now history, along with the political, personal and technological dramas that accompanied them. But perhaps after all of these things are forgotten in the ages to come, the events of 60 years ago will be most remembered as that day when the human race took its first tentative step from its home into the stars.

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