50 years ago, on October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union sent the first artificial satellite, called Sputnik (Russian = companion), into orbit around the earth, marking the beginning of space travel.
The 83 kg spherical satellite orbited the earth in 96 minutes. It sent out beeping radio signals that could be received worldwide.
After just 75 days, Sputnik 1 burned up in the earth's atmosphere. Its scientific value was low, but its worldwide propaganda success was enormous. In many countries flirting with communism, people were excited.
The US felt threatened by transcontinental missiles that could carry nuclear weapons.
During the Second World War, the development of large missiles was neglected in the USA and Russia. In Germany they worked intensively on it and developed a technical lead.
After the war, the leading German rocket scientists were interned in the USA, but rocket development there was initially not carried out very intensively. The Russians had to be content with the second set of German rocket technicians, who also had valuable knowledge.
In July 1955, the American president resigned Dwight D. Eisenhower the development of an artificial earth satellite. A few days later, the Soviet Union announced that it was working on a corresponding project. In the middle of the Cold War, the space race was on. In the West no one doubted the technical superiority of the Americans.
The rich United States made multiple developments: the Air Force was working on an ICBM, the Navy was building a three-stage launcher, and the Army was developing multi-stage ICBMs under the direction of Wernher von Braun (1912-1977).
A race into space
After the launch of Sputnik 1, Wernher von Braun offered to put a US satellite into orbit within 60 days.
But American self-confidence could not allow a rocket developed by a German for such a prestige project. So the Navy came to the train with their "Vanguard".
On December 6, 1957, the first US satellite launch was televised live. It was a fiasco. The rocket had barely lifted off when it fell back a few meters on the launch pad and exploded.
Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the CPSU, was able to make fun of the American "grapefruit" (the satellite weighed only 1.6 kg), which immediately fell from the sky again. Word games from "Kaputnik" and "Flopnik" made the rounds. The self-confidence of the Americans was tarnished, and especially the Third World was dazzled by the Russian successes.
Then Braun's team finally got involved. On February 1, 1958 - after 56 days as promised - the first US satellite “Explorer 1” was launched into earth orbit with a “Jupiter-C” rocket.
The western world is shocked
The launch of the first artificial earth satellite called into question the technological superiority of the West, which was taken for granted in the USA and Western Europe. In the most advanced technology, space travel, the Russians were ahead!
A social discussion that affects almost all areas began in western countries. The reason for the apparent technical deficit compared to the Soviet Union were z. B. the traditional Western systems of rule, the conditions in schools, and much more discussed, which was denounced a decade later in the "68 revolution".
The reaction of the US government to the Sputnik shock was various funding programs for technical and scientific development and in particular the establishment of NASA. At the end of the 1960s, the latter was not only able to catch up with the Russians' lead, but also to win the race to land on the moon for the first time.