The Space Race formally began in August, 1955 when the Soviet Union said it would launch a satellite into orbit four days after the United States declared its intention to do so.
The world changing headline of October 4, 1957 was â€ś USSR Launches Sputnik â€ś.
Sputnik and the Space Race
This act ignited the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Sputnik orbited the Earth every 98 minutes, its transmitter making it clear to those below that the Soviets had the first successful satellite in orbit. The small satellite was only 22 inches across but transmitted radio signals strong enough to be picked up by amateur â€śhamâ€ť radio operators. The beeping spacecraft sent its signal to everyone below several times a day before burning up in the atmosphere in early 1958.
Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite in orbit above the Earth and a Soviet accomplishment. A prior American satellite, Vanguard, blew up on the launch pad the prior year. Sputnik was matched by the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles by the U.S.S.R.
The Sputnik launch spawned the launch of the American space program in return. It triggered the Space Race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The U.S. successfully launched its first satellite, the Explorer I, in January, 1958. At 184 pounds, Sputnik was larger than Explorer but Explorer was in a larger orbit. Explorer contained scientific instruments that discovered the magnetic radiation belts now called the Van Allen belts after the person who theorized their existence, James Van Allen. Sputnikâ€™s launch itself did yield valuable scientific data like information on the drag the upper atmosphere created on craft.
The Explorer satellite launch was overshadowed by the launch of Sputnik 2 satellite, which carried the first dog into space. (It wasnâ€™t known at that time if humans could survive above the atmosphere, so animals were sent first.) A second satellite launched by the United States collected information on micrometeorite impact rates, cosmic ray and radiation levels and the temperature in the spacecraft.
The Sputnik 1 launch directly led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA in 1958. NASA took over the space program as it had been developed to that point by the U.S. Army.
Long Term Impact of the Sputnik Launch
The longer term impact of Sputnikâ€™s launch was the Space Race and the peaceful but tense competition between the U.S. and Russia in technology instead of outright war. The Space Race resulted in or contributed to Yuri Gagarin being the first man in space, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, John Glennâ€™s fame as the first man to orbit the Earth, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, the American moon landing of 1969, Soviet space station Mir, the International Space Station and NASAâ€™s interplanetary probes.
Sputnik and the Space Race is credited with causing the government to pour massive amounts of energy, effort and money into technological development and math and science education due to fears that the United States was falling behind Russia.
A more tangible legacy is the network of communication, weather and spy satellites in orbit above the Earth today, used in everything from the Global Positioning System (GPS) to satellite television to monitoring environmental conditions on Earth.