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Former Soviet Union Launched Space Age 50 Years Ago

October 4th marks 50 years since the former Soviet Union hurled humanity's first object into Earth orbit. It was a small round device known as Sputnik -- Russian for “satellite” -- with four antennas and a transmitter. The launch was a stunning scientific advance, but, surprisingly, those who achieved it did not set out to conquer outer space. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports that Sputnik was an afterthought of a troubled Soviet military project.

On October 4th, 1957, a rocket launched from Tyuratam, today's Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan, boosted into space a highly polished aluminum ball 58 centimeters in diameter, weighing 83 kilograms. Ground receivers recorded its famous beeping signal as it passed overhead in an elliptical orbit above the Earth.

Clearly proud of the launch, Soviet media proclaimed the triumph of Soviet science and technology. Banner headlines around the world reflected international surprise over news of the first artificial satellite to circle the planet.

The current director of the Russian space agency, Anatoly Perminov, was a ninth grader at the time. He says the event influenced his decision to become a rocket scientist.

"It was a big celebration. Yet, most -- 90 per cent -- did not appreciate what had just happened. Nonetheless, there was euphoria that I feel in my soul to this day."

Ninety-six-year-old Boris Chertok is one of the last living participants of the Sputnik launch. He was a deputy to chief Soviet rocket designer Sergei Korolev. In an exclusive interview with the VOA, Chertok said those involved in the launch were equally surprised by the world reaction.

"For us, I'll tell you quite honestly, it was pleasant and unexpected. But naturally, it gave us great satisfaction. There was, if you will, an element of creative good luck, when you understand that you accomplished something you were not counting on."

Chertok says the Soviet Union was actually counting on development of an intercontinental ballistic missile to counter a perceived American nuclear threat. But, Chertok says test launches exploded or the nosecone disintegrated upon descent into dense layers of the atmosphere. He says his boss, Sergei Korolev, was one of the few dreamers on the missile program who were interested in space exploration, not militarism. Korolev argued that the Sputnik's nosecone would not encounter the density problem because it would not return to Earth. Korolev's dream coincided with Soviet political needs.

"Our political leadership,” Chertok explained, “including [Premier] Nikita Khrushchev, believed the Soviet Union should not fall behind. We had to show that our social system had substantive advantages over the American system, so he approved the launch of a simplified sputnik."

Chertok says the Sputnik launch was a team effort involving about 1,000 people working in secret half a century ago. Their artificial satellite remained in space for 21 days.

So, it seems humanity's first orbiting device resulted from a military project developed by scientists, driven by politics, and steered by a handful of dreamers.