Korolev, Sputnik, and The International Geophysical Year

Asif A. Siddiqi

From the point of historical inquiry, the institutional and political machinations behind the genesis of Sputnik have remained a largely ignored area of scholarship. Embellished by speculation and fueled by Soviet secrecy, the story behind Sputnik has assumed the form of a parable, cobbled together from rumors and mythology, and colored by an eagerness to fill in the blanks of what we did not know. Thus, while the post-mortem effects of Sputnik have been the subject of much scholarly debate, the origins and motivations that led to the launch of the first artificial satellite have remained, to a large degree, in the realm of conjecture. In recent years, with the dissolution of the Soviet state in 1991, mythology came into confrontation with reality. Declassified primary documents have provided a rich resource and incentive to look back again at an event which had such a profound impact on the course of events in the latter part of the twentieth century.


Sputnik would not have been possible without the combined contributions of two men who had consistently advocated a commitment for a space program to a reluctant Soviet government. Sergey Pavlovich Korolev, the younger of the two, had become absorbed in dreams of space exploration during his short tenure as a member and eventual leader of an amateur Soviet rocketry group in the early 1930s. 1 It was there that he befriended Mikhail Klavdiyevich Tikhonravov, another former glider pilot. Their paths diverged during World War II and in its aftermath they were working in different institutions, both contributing to the new long-range ballistic missile effort. Korolev had the auspicious title of 'Chief Designer,' by dint of his official title as head of the Department No. 3 of the Specialized Design Bureau at the Scientific Research Institute No. 88 ('NII-88' in its Russian abbreviation). 2 Stalin had established the NII-88 (pronounced 'nee-88') in 1946 to serve as the leading engineering organization in Soviet industry to develop long-range missiles.

During the following decade, Korolev's department, which eventually became an independent organization, the Experimental Design Bureau No. 1 (OKB-1), focused efforts on a series of ballistic missiles for the Soviet armed forces. Since the primary thematic thrust of Korolev's group was military missiles, there was negligible work on projects which had purely scientific utility. Dedicated wholly to the grand ideals of space exploration, Korolev did make a few spurious efforts to interest the leadership in artificial satellites in the late 1940s, but none of these ever proved to have any results until he combined his lobbying with Tikhonravov's independent work at the NII-4, an unrelated military institution dedicated to research on applications of ballistic missiles. After authoring several important R&D reports on the possibility of space launch vehicles and artificial satellites in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Tikhonravov emerged in 1954 with a detailed technical exposition entitled "Report on an Artificial Satellite of the Earth." 3 It was at the same time, on 20 May 1954, that the Soviet government formally tasked Korolev's Design Bureau to develop the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7. Korolev did not waste time. Just six days later, he sent Tikhonravov's satellite report to the Soviet government with an attached cover letter stating:

I draw your attention to the memorandum of Comrade M. K. Tikhonravov, "Report on an Artificial Satellite of the Earth," and also to the forwarded materials from the U.S.A. on work being carried out in this field. The current development of a new product [the R-7 ICBM] makes it possible for us to speak of the possibility of developing in the near future an artificial satellite...It seems to me that in the present time there is the opportunity...for carrying out the initial exploratory work on a satellite and more detailed work on complex problems involved with this goal. We await your decision. 4

If Korolev's goal was to elicit a formal decree for his proposal, his appeal was not very successful. However, his request appears to have been passed on through various levels of the government and reached the office of missile and nuclear industry chief Vyecheslav A. Malyshev, officially the Minister of Medium Machine Building. Prompted by Korolev's persuasive arguments, Malyshev, along with three other top defense industry officials, submitted a proposal to Soviet leader Georgiy M. Malenkov asking permission to carry out "work on the scientific-theoretical questions associated with space flight." 5 No doubt interested in the military applications of Tikhonravov's satellite, Malenkov approved the idea. Armed with a modicum of support, Korolev commenced a modest research project at his Design Bureau coordinated with Tikhonravov's own work at the NII-4. Incredibly, as this research was ongoing, the satellite issue remained divorced from further governmental involvement, as Korolev was diverted to more important matters relating to work on military missiles such as the R-7 ICBM. It was, however, the very first intervention by the Soviet government on an issue related to space exploration.

Korolev's satellite work may have continued at a leisurely pace through the mid-1950s with lukewarm governmental support were it not for some surprising and well-publicized events outside of the USSR. In the spring of 1950, a group of American scientists led by James van Allen met in Silver Springs, Maryland to discuss the possibility of an international scientific program to study the upper atmosphere and outer space via sounding rockets, balloons, and ground observations. Strong support from Western European scientists allowed the idea to expand into a worldwide program timed to coincide with a period of intense solar activity, 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958. The participants named this period the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and created the Comité speciale de l'année géophysique internationale (the 'Special Committee for the International Geophysical Year' or 'CSAGI') to establish an agenda for the program. Soviet representatives, including Academy of Sciences Vice-President Academician Ivan P. Bardin, served on the Committee, but do not appear to have had any significant contribution to its proceedings. In fact, the May 1954 deadline for submissions for participation in the IGY passed without any word from Soviet authorities. At a subsequent meeting in Rome on 4 October 1954, Soviet scientists silently witnessed the approval of a historic U.S.-sponsored plan to orbit artificial satellites during the IGY. 6 The satellite proposal clearly surprised the Soviet delegation, and perhaps had repercussions within the USSR Academy of Sciences. In the fall of 1954, the Academy established the Interdepartmental Commission for the Coordination and Control of Work in the Field of Organization and Accomplishment of Interplanetary Communications, a typically longwinded title which obscured its primary role, a forum for Soviet scientists to discuss space exploration in abstract terms, both in secret and in public. 7

The existence of the Commission was announced on 16 April 1955 in an article in a Moscow evening newspaper; Academician Leonid I. Sedov, a relatively well-known gas dynamics expert was listed as the Chairman of the Commission. 8 Unlike the title of the body, the primary duty of the Commission was stated with unusual explicitness: "One of the immediate tasks of the Commission is to organize work concerning building an automatic laboratory for scientific research in space." In hindsight, it is clear that the Commission, a part of the Astronomy Council in the Academy, had very little input or influence over de facto decision-making in the Soviet space program, although one of its functions was to collect proposals from various scientists on possible scientific experiments which could be mounted on future satellites. Sedov himself played a major role as Chairman by appearing at numerous international conferences talking in very general terms on the future of space exploration. None of its members had any direct connection or contact with the missile and space program, although they were clearly aware of the broad nature of Korolev's work. The latter appears to have had little to do with the formation or work of the Commission. He evidently attended one meeting in 1954 to inquire about the group's work. 10

While this Commission had little real authority, its Chairman Sedov may have played a crucial role in connecting Korolev's satellite efforts with the International Geophysical Year. The chain of events was set off on 29 July 1955 by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Press Secretary James C. Hagerty who announced at the White House that the United States would launch "small Earth-circling satellites" as part of its participation in the IGY. 11 It was at this same time that the International Astronautical Federation was holding its Sixth International Astronautical Congress at Copenhagen, Denmark. Heading the Soviet delegation was Sedov and Kirill F. Ogorodnikov, the editor of a respected astronomy journal in the USSR. The two were called into action by an announcement on 2 August by Fred C. Durant III, the President of the Congress, who reported the Eisenhower Administration's intentions of launching a satellite during the IGY. Not to be outdone, Sedov convened a press conference the same day at the Soviet embassy in Copenhagen for about 50 journalists during which he announced that "In my opinion, it will be possible to launch an artificial Earth satellite within the next two years." He added that "The realization of the Soviet project can be expected in the near future." 12

It is quite unlikely that Sedov was speaking on his own authority, and possibly had taken cues from highly-placed Party officials who were aware of the government's approval in August 1954 of exploratory research on space issues. Perhaps a Party or Academy of Sciences official back in Moscow had decreed that Durant's statement warranted a response from Sedov. Certainly, there had been much discussion on the possibility of Soviet satellites by that time, although no single project had received approval. What is known is that the two pronouncements, one by the Eisenhower Administration, and the one by Sedov, were the subject of relatively intense scrutiny by the press all over the world. This response appears to have been critical for Korolev.

By coincidence, it was on 16 July 1955 that Tikhonravov, along with OKB-1 engineer Ilya V. Lavrov as co-author, finished his latest study on artificial satellites. 13 Based on work originating from the May 1954 document, the two suggested a reduced mass of 1,000-1,400 kilograms for an automated satellite. They also proposed the formation of a group of 70-80 people to carry out the task of designing and building the satellite and to work on future piloted spacecraft (Korolev wrote in the margins: "Too many, 30-35 people."). The Chief Designer, more attuned to the political reality of such a project, also added that "the creation of [a satellite] would have enormous political significance as evidence of the high development level of our country's technology." 14 In a move symptomatic of Korolev's relentless perseverance of the space issue since the early 1950s, Korolev also had one of his sector chiefs at the OKB-1 prepare a technical report on the possibility of sending a probe to the Moon using modified versions of the R-7 ICBM.

The activity on the space front reached its zenith on 30 August 1955 when Korolev attended two different meetings, one with the defense community, and one with the scientific community, to discuss the new satellite report. The former was at the offices of the powerful Military-Industrial Commission, the coordinating mechanism for management of the entire Soviet defense industry. Presiding over the meeting was the Commission's new Chairman Vasiliy M. Ryabikov. Also in attendance were Academician Mstislav V. Keldysh, a noted scientist involved in research and development on several high profile military programs, and Col.-Engineer Aleksandr G. Mrykin, a senior artillery officer responsible for overseeing the procurement of new ballistic missiles for the Soviet armed forces. 15 At the meeting Korolev spoke of both his satellites and lunar probes. Notorious for his legendary short temper and larger-than-life personality, Mrykin was not receptive to Korolev's old arguments of the possibly great political importance of a Soviet satellite. The artillery officer told Korolev in no uncertain terms that only when the R-7 had completed its flight testing would they consider a satellite. Fortunately for Korolev, he had the Keldysh's support, and that may have tipped the scales. While details of the deliberations remain extremely sketchy, it appears that Ryabikov approved the use of an R-7 ICBM for a modest satellite program. Lunar probes were not considered. There were probably two factors working in Korolev's favor: the possible use of a satellite for military purposes; and the demonstration of Soviet science and technology during the IGY.

Armed with Ryabikov's approval, Korolev attended a second secret meeting the same day at the offices of the 'chief scholarly secretary' of the Academy of Sciences Gennadiy V. Topchiyev. Many other scientists and designers including Keldysh, Tikhonravov, and rocket engine specialist Valentin P. Glushko were present. Korolev reported to the distinguished assemblage that the Council of Chief Designers at a recent meeting had conducted a detailed examination on modifying the original R-7 into a vehicle capable of launching a satellite into orbit. No doubt, he also spoke of the government's interest on the matter. At the end of his speech he formally proposed to build and launch a series of satellites into space, including one with animals, and for the Academy to establish a formal commission to carry out this goal. The Chief Designer had a specific timetable in mind. He told his audience, "As for the booster rocket, we hope to begin the first launches in April-July 1957...before the start of the International Geophysical Year." 16 If earlier, Korolev's satellite plans had been timed for the indefinite future, the Eisenhower Administrations announcement in July 1955 completely changed the direction of Korolev's attack. Not only did it imbue Korolev's satellite proposal with a new sense of urgency, but it also gave him a specific timetable to aim for. If the United States was planning to launch during the IGY, then the Soviets would launch one a few months before the beginning of the International Geophysical Year, guaranteeing a first place finish. The attending scientists at the meeting accepted the new proposal, and at Korolev's recommendation Keldysh was designated the Chairman of the commission. Korolev and Tikhonravov would serve as his deputies.

The following day, on 31 August, a smaller group, including Korolev, Tikhonravov, and Keldysh met to discuss some of the proposals for satellite instruments which many scientists had submitted to Sedov's Commission in the past year. A few days later Tikhonravov and Keldysh convened with some prominent Soviet scientific scholars to explain details of the satellite design and how their instruments were being considered. Korolev himself approved a preliminary scientific program in September 1955, a program which included the study of the ionosphere, cosmic rays, the Earth's magnetic fields, luminescence in the upper atmosphere, the Sun, and its influence on the Earth, and other natural phenomena. The detailed development of a scientific program was left in the hands of the two existing commissions of the Academy headed by Anatoliy A. Blagonravov and Leonid I. Sedov. 17

The approval by the Academy to conduct a purely scientific research program accelerated matters considerably. In the ensuing months, several important meetings were held, both by Keldysh's commission and by the Council of Chief Designers, which elaborated the details of the project. Between December 1955 and March 1956, Keldysh consulted a huge number of distinguished scholars to refine the scientific experiments package. They included numerous famous Soviet scientists, many of whose names were public knowledge unlike those who were actually developing the spacecraft. 18 It was a large-scale operation with a single coordinating mechanism which, because of its 'civilian' nature, had little precedent. Korolev himself was very conscious of the fact that an official decree on the project had yet to be issued, which meant that a rocket was still not officially available for the project. The magnitude of the immediate tasks, however, obscured that important issue for the time being. There were continuous problems with the program, especially since many who were cooperating did not share Korolev's enthusiasm for the project.

It took about four months for Ryabikov's spoken approval in August 1955 to translate into a formal decree of the Soviet government. As a purely scientific project managed by the Academy of Sciences, it was not considered a top priority. In fact, the Soviet government probably viewed the satellite project in much the same manner as they viewed the continuing series of scientific rocket flights into the upper atmosphere which also used military missiles for 'civilian' purposes. They were relatively inexpensive, unobtrusive, and ignored by the political leadership. Consequently, the USSR Council of Ministers issued a decree, number 149-88ss, on 30 January 1956, calling for the creation of an unoriented artificial satellite. The document approved the launch of a satellite, designated the 'Object D,' in 1957 in time for the International Geophysical Year. As per Tikhonravov's previous computations, the mass of the satellite was limited to 1,000 to 1,400 kilograms of which 200 to 300 kilograms would be scientific instruments. Apart from the Academy of Sciences, five industrial ministries would be involved in the project. The responsibility for preparing a Draft Plan for the Object D fell on the shoulders of Sergey S. Kryukov, at the time a Department Chief at the OKB-1. Tikhonravov served as the 'chief scientific consultant. 19 Korolev had his promise. It was now too late to turn back.


The Object D (or D-1) was so named since it would be the fifth type of payload to be carried on an R-7, Objects A, B, V, and G being designations for different nuclear warhead containers. 20 The satellite was a complex scientific laboratory, far more sophisticated than any other IGY proposal from the period. While Kryukov's engineers depended a great deal on Tikhonravov's early work on satellites, much of the actual design was a journey into uncharted territory for the OKB-1. There was little precedent for creating pressurized containers and instrumentation for work in Earth orbit, while long-range communications systems had to be designed without the benefit of prior experience. The engineers were aware of the trajectory tracking and support capabilities for the R-7 missile, and this provided a context for determining the levels of contact with the vehicle. The fact that the object would be out of contact with the ground for long periods of time (unlike sounding rockets) meant that new self-switching automated systems would have to be used. The selection of metals to construct the satellite also presented problems to the engineers, since the effects of continuous exposure to the space environment was still in the realm of conjecture. The experiments and experience from sounding rocket tests provided a database for the final selection.

Technical work on the vehicle officially began on 25 February 1956 with actual construction beginning on 5 March. Tikhonravov's group at the NII-4 and Korolev's Design Bureau at the NII-88 were the two most active participants in this process, but numerous other organizations provided various elements of the complete satellite. By 14 June, Korolev finalized the necessary changes to the basic version of the R-7 ICBM in order to use it for a satellite launch. The new booster would incorporate a number of major changes including the use of uprated main engines, deletion of the central radio package on the booster, and a new payload fairing replacing the old one used for a nuclear warhead. 21 A month later, on 24 July 1956, Korolev formally approved the initial Draft Plan for the Object D. The document was co-signed by his senior associates Tikhonravov, Konstantin D. Bushuyev, Sergey O. Okhapkin, and Leonid A. Voskresenskiy. 22

By mid-1956 the Object D project was beginning to fall significantly behind schedule. Some subcontractors were particularly lackadaisical in their assignments, and parts were often delivered which did not fit the original specifications. On 14 September, Keldysh made a personal plea at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences Presidium for speeding up work, invoking a threat all would understand: "we all want our satellite to fly earlier than the Americans." 23 Events in the satellite program took an abrupt turn in the waning months of 1956. Actual test models of the Object D, expected to be ready by October, remained unfinished. By the end of November, Korolev began to suffer from great anxiety, no doubt compounded by his extraordinarily busy plans, traveling from Kaliningrad to Kapustin Yar to Tyura-Tam to Molotovsk and back several times to oversee various projects. 24 Part of this anxiety was due to serious concerns that his project would be suddenly preempted with a satellite launch from the United States. He had been informed of a September 1956 launch of a missile from Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral, Florida which according to his erroneous information was a failed attempt to launch a satellite into orbit. 25 A second concern were the results of static testing of the R-7 engines on the ground. Instead of the projected specific impulse of 309-310 seconds, the R-7 engines would not produce more than 304 seconds, too low for the heavy Object D satellite. He realized that perhaps he was making this effort too complicated. Why not attempt to launch something simpler on the first orbital attempt instead of a sophisticated one-and-a-half-ton scientific observatory?

At the end of November Tikhonravov was perceptive enough to detect Korolev's anxiety and verbalized it: "What if we make the satellite a little lighter? 26 Thirty kilograms or so, or even lighter?" Keldysh was at first opposed to the idea, but eventually ceded to the strong-willed Korolev. This time Korolev would not depend on dozens of other subcontractors: he made sure that the smaller satellite would be designed and manufactured completely in his own Design Bureau with the help of only two outside organizations: the Scientific Research Institute of Current Sources under Nikolay S. Lidorenko for the design of the on board batteries, and the NII-885 under Chief Designer Mikhail S. Ryazanskiy for the radio-transmitters. On 5 January 1957, Korolev sent off a letter to the government which described his revised plan. He asked that permission be given to launch two small satellites, each with mass of 40-50 kilograms, in the period April-June 1957 immediately prior to the beginning of the IGY. This plan would be contingent upon the timetable for the R-7 program which Korolev admitted was behind schedule; the first launch of the missile was set for March 1957 at the earliest. Each satellite would orbit the Earth at altitudes of 225 X 500 kilometers and contain a simple shortwave transmitter with a power source sufficient for 10 days operation. Korolev did not obscure the reasons for the abrupt change in plans:

...the United States is conducting very intensive plans for launching an artificial Earth satellite. The most well-known project under the name "Vanguard" uses a three-stage missile...the satellite proposed is a spherical container of 50 centimeters diameter and a mass of approximately 10 kilograms. In September 1956, the U.S.A. attempted to launch a three-stage missile with a satellite from Patrick Base [sic] in the state of Florida which was kept secret. The Americans failed to launch the satellite...and the payload flew about 3,000 miles or approximately 4,800 kilometers. This flight was then publicized in the press as a national record. They emphasized that U.S. rockets can fly higher and farther than all the rockets in the world, including Soviet rockets. From separate printed reports, it is known that the U.S.A. is preparing in the nearest months a new attempt to launch an artificial Earth satellite and is willing to pay any price to achieve this priority. 27

While Korolev's information on U.S. plans may have been in error, his instincts were not that far off. The United States could have launched a satellite by early 1957, but various institutional and political obstacles precluded such an attempt.

By 25 January 1957, the Chief Designer approved the initial design details of the satellite, now officially designated Simple Satellite No. 1 (PS-1). 28 Although there was some token resistance to Korolev's revised plan, primarily from Keldysh, his letter appeared to have adequately invoked the specter of U.S. eminence in the field of military technology. On 15 February, the USSR Council of Ministers formally signed a decree (no. 171-83ss) entitled "On Measures to Carry Out in the International Geophysical Year," approving the new proposal. 29 The two new satellites, PS-1 and PS-2, would weigh approximately 100 kilograms and be launched in April-May 1957 after one or two fully successful R-7 launches. Eisenhower's plan to launch an American satellite during IGY was the deciding factor on a launch date. The Object D launch, meanwhile was pushed back to April 1958. Focused on a more modest objective, Korolev wasted little time. He quickly sent out technical specifications for the initial satellite PS-1 to the two subcontractors. By this time there was an impressive sight at the Tyura-Tam launch base in Soviet Central Asia: the first flight article of the magnificent R-7 was on the launch pad.

The first three launches of the R-7 ICBM in May-July 1957 were all failures, completely disrupting Korolev's schedule to launch a satellite before the beginning of the IGY. The days following the last failure were the lowest point for Korolev and his associates. Suddenly everything they had labored for over three years had been put into doubt. There was severe criticism from higher officials and even talk of curtailing the entire program. For Korolev, the headaches were compounded by the cumulative delays of his Simple Satellite project. It was now a month into the IGY and the R-7 itself had not flown a successful mission. His dreams, his position, his status were all in jeopardy, and this began to affect his temperament. In mid-June he had written to his wife, "Things are not going very well again," adding with a note of optimism, "Here, right here and now, we must strive for the solution we need!." By July things began to deteriorate. On the 8th he wrote "We are working very hard," but after the second launch failure, he wrote on the 23th "Things are very, very bad." 30 Korolev's biographer wrote in 1987, "In all the postwar years, no days were more painful, difficult, or tense for Sergey Pavlovich Korolev than those of that hot summer of 1957." 31

Apart from competition from the United States, Korolev had to unexpectedly deal with a different kind of threat at the time, one from within the USSR in the person of Chief Designer Mikhail K. Yangel of the Experimental Design Bureau No. 586 (OKB-586). In the first quarter of 1957, Yangel's Design Bureau at Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine, on orders from ministerial boss Dmitriy F. Ustinov, had begun to explore the possibility of modifying their R-12 intermediate range ballistic missile into a satellite launch vehicle. 32 The missile itself, fueled by storable hypergolic propellants unlike the R-7, was the subject of a five year long development program, at first under Korolev's tutelage, but later transferred to Dnepropetrovsk. Prodded by the unending delays in the R-7 program, Yangel evaluated "the possibility of the immediate launch of a similar satellite [as Korolev's] using the simplest of booster rockets based on the strategic R-12 missile." 33 Although analysis proved that a hastily modified two-stage R-12 could be used for this goal, it did not seem likely that a first launch could be carried out prior to either the R-7 or the Americans. To Korolev's relief, the plan was shelved.

Back at the launch range of Tyura-Tam, the fourth R-7 launch on 21 August 1957 was successful. The missile and its payload flew 6,500 kilometers, the warhead finally entering the atmosphere over the target point at Kamchatka. Korolev was so subsumed by euphoria that he stayed awake until three in the morning speaking to his deputies and aides about the great possibilities that had opened up, the future, and mostly about his artificial satellite. 34 It was extremely unusual for the Soviets to publicize successes in any military field, so it was all the more odd when six days after the R-7 launch, the official news agency TASS released a brief communiqué:

A few days ago a super-long-range, intercontinental multistage ballistic missile was launched. The tests of the missile were successful; they fully confirmed the correctness of the calculations and the selected design. The flight of the missile took place at a very great, hitherto unattained, altitude. Covering an enormous distance in a short time, the missile hit the assigned region. The results obtained show that there is the possibility of launching missiles into any region of the terrestrial globe. The solution of the problem of creating intercontinental ballistic missiles will make it possible to reach remote regions without resorting to strategic aviation, which at the present time is vulnerable to modern means antiaircraft defense. 35

Clearly it did not have the intended effect on the U.S. public or media, since for the most part, little attention was given it. Those that did pay lip service to the announcement spoke only to dismiss the claim, a stance justified partly by the black hole of information on Soviet ballistic missiles. It would take 38 more days before the entire world would take notice that a new age had arrived, heralded by that same intercontinental ballistic missile.


Work on the 'simple satellite' PS-1 had continued at an uneven pace since development of the object began in January 1957. Between March and August, engineers carried out computations to select and refine the trajectory of the launch vehicle and the satellite during launch. These enormously complicated computations for the R-7 program were initially done by hand using electrical arithrometers and six-digit trigonometric tables. When more complex calculations were required, engineers at the OKB-1 were offered the use of a 'real' computer recently installed at the premises of the Academy of Sciences at Keldysh's request. The gigantic machine filled up a huge room at the department and may have been the fastest computer in the USSR in the late 1950s: it could perform ten thousand operations per second, a high-end capability for Soviet computing machines of the time. 36

There were many debates on the shape of the first satellite, with most senior OKB-1 designers preferring a conical form since it fit well with the nose cone of the rocket. At a meeting early in the year, Korolev had a change-of-heart and suggested a metal sphere at least one meter in diameter. 37 There were six major guidelines followed in the construction of PS-1:

The five primary scientific objectives of the mission were:

The satellite as it eventually emerged was a pressurized sphere, 58 centimeters in diameter made of an aluminum alloy. The sphere was constructed by combining two hemispherical casings together. The pressurized internal volume of the sphere was filled with nitrogen at 1.3 atmospheres which maintained an electro-chemical source of power (three silver-zinc batteries), two D-200 radio-transmitters, a DTK-34 thermo-regulation system, a ventilation system, a communications system, temperature and pressure transmitters, and associated wiring. The two radio transmitters operated at frequencies of 20.005 and 40.002 megacycles at wavelengths of 1.5 and 7.5 meters. The signals on both the frequencies were spurts lasting 0.2 to 0.6 seconds, providing the famous 'beep-beep' sound to the transmissions. The antennae system comprised four rods, two with a length of 2.4 meters each and the remaining two with a length of 2.9 meters each. Tests of this radio system were completed as early as 5 May 1957 using a helicopter and a ground station. 39 The total mass of the satellite was 83.6 kilograms of which 51.0 kilograms was simply the power source. The lead designer for PS-1 was Mikhail S. Khomyakov. Oleg G. Ivanovskiy was his deputy. 40

Korolev, of course, kept close tabs on the development of PS-1 and continuously saw to it that the spherical satellite was kept spotlessly clean and shiny not only for its reflective qualities, but perhaps also for its overall aesthetic beauty. On one occasion he flew into a rage at a junior assembly shop worker for doing a poor job on the outer surface of a mockup of the satellite. "This ball will be exhibited in museums!," he shouted. 41 An aide from Moscow telephoned Korolev at Tyura-Tam on 24 June to inform him that he had just signed the document specifying the final configuration of the satellite. The launch vehicle earmarked for the satellite was a slightly uprated version of the basic R-7 ICBM variant. The modifications included: the omission of a 300 kilogram radio-package from the top of the core booster; the changing of burn times of the main engines; the removal of a vibration measurement system; the use of a special nozzle system to separate the booster from the satellite installed at the top of the core stage; and the installation of a completely new payload shroud and container replacing the warhead configuration. 42 The length of the booster with the new shroud was 29.167 meters, almost four meters shorter than the ICBM version.

The Council of Ministers had formally approved the simple satellite program in February 1957. With one R-7 success under his belt, Korolev now needed final permission from the State Commission to proceed with an orbital launch after a second successful launch. Despite the official governmental sanction, this process appears to have been fraught with difficulty, suggesting that even at this late stage, there were individuals on the Commission who were not interested in the satellite attempt. At a State Commission meeting soon after the August launch, Korolev formally asked for permission to launch a satellite if a second R-7 successfully flew in early September. Convincing the Commission proved to be much harder than expected and the meeting ended in fierce arguments and recriminations. Not easily turned away, Korolev tried again at a second session soon after, this time using a political ploy: "I propose let us put the question of national priority in launching the world's first artificial Earth satellite to the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Let them settle it." 43 It worked. None of the members wanted to take the blame for a potential miscalculation, and Korolev got what he wanted. A final document for launch, "The Program for Carrying Out a Test Launch of a Simple Unoriented ISZ (the Object PS) Using the Product 8K71PS," was later signed by:

The subsequent launch of the R-7 on 7 September was as successful as the one in August, and the R-7 ICBM flew across the Soviet Union before depositing its dummy warhead over the Kamchatka peninsula. 45 In the summer, Korolev and the other Chief Designers began to informally target the satellite launch for the one hundredth anniversary of spaceflight visionary Tsiolkovskiy's birth on 17 September, but achieving this date proved increasingly unrealistic. Instead of being at Tyura-Tam for a space launch on that day, Korolev and R-7 rocket engine designer Glushko were both in attendance at the Pillard Hall of the Palace of Unions in Moscow for a special celebration of the great visionary's birthday. In a long speech to the distinguished audience, Korolev, whose real job was not revealed, prophesized that, "in the nearest future the first test launches of artificial satellites of the Earth with scientific goals will take place in the USSR and the USA." 46 The audience had little idea of the accuracy of the prediction.

On 20 September Korolev was at Moscow for a meeting of the State Commission for the PS-1 launch. 47 Chairman Ryabikov, Korolev, Keldysh, and Marshall Nedelin were the principle participants and established 6 October as the target date of the launch based on the pace of preparations. At the same meeting, the Commission decided to publicly announce the launch of PS-1 only after completion of the first orbit. A communiqué to this effect was written up by Ryabikov himself on 23 September. 48 The frequencies for tracking by amateurs had already been announced earlier in the year in the issues of the journal Radio although details of the program had obviously been omitted. Korolev himself flew into Tyura-Tam on 29 September staying in a small house close to the primary activity area near site two.

The preparations for launching were for the most part uneventful save for the last minute replacement of one of the batteries on the flight version of PS-1. Still apprehensive over a last minute U.S. launch, Korolev abruptly proposed to the State Commission that the launch be brought forward two days. His concerns were apparently prompted by plans for a conference in Washington, D.C. in early October as part of IGY proceedings. On the 6th, the day of PS-1's scheduled launch, a paper entitled "Satellite Over the Planet" was to be presented by the American delegation. He believed that the presentation was to be timed to coincide with a hitherto unannounced launch of a U.S. satellite. 49 Local KGB representatives assured Korolev that this was not so, but Korolev was convinced that a launch of Army Jupiter C might be attempted. In the end, the schedule for PS-1's launch was moved forward two days to the 4th; Korolev signed the final order for launch at four in the afternoon on the 2nd and sent it to Moscow for approval. 50

The R-7 was transported and installed on the launch pad in the early morning of 3 October escorted on foot by Korolev, Ryabikov, and other members of the State Commission. Fueling began early the following morning at 0545 hours local time. 51 Korolev, under a great amount of pressure, remained cautious throughout the proceedings. He told his engineers, "Nobody will hurry us. If you have even the tiniest doubt, we will stop the testing and make the corrections on the satellite. There is still time..." 52 Most of the engineers, understandably enough, did not have time to ponder over the historical value or importance of the upcoming event. PS-1's deputy designer Ivanovskiy recalled "...Nobody back then was thinking about the magnitude of what was going on: everyone did his own job, living through its disappointments and joys." 53

On the night of the 4th, huge flood lights illuminated the launchpad as the engineers in their blockhouse checked off all the systems. In the command bunker accompanying Korolev were some of the senior members of the State Commission. All launch operations for Sputnik were handled by two men, a civilian and a military officer. Representing the civilians was Korolev's deputy Leonid A. Voskresenskiy, one of the most colorful characters in the history of the Soviet space program. A daredevil motorcyclist with a legendary penchant for taking risks, he had been with the program since the early days in 1945 when the Soviets had scoured Germany for the remains of the A-4 missile. Lt.-Col. Aleksandr I. Nosov represented the military. Both men were 44 years old at the time. The actual command for launch was entrusted to the hands of Boris S. Chekunov, a young artillery forces lieutenant. He later recalled the final moments as the clock ticked past midnight local time: "When only a few minutes remained until lift-off, Korolev nodded to his deputy Voskresenskiy. The operators froze, awaiting the final order. Nosov, the chief of the launch control team, stood at the periscope. He could see the whole pad. 'One minute to go!,' he called." 54 Another senior engineer in the bunker recalled:

With the exception of the operators, everybody was standing. Only N. A. Pilyugin and S. P. Korolev were allowed to sit down. The launch director [Nosov] began issuing commands. I kept an eye on S. P. Korolev. He seemed nervous although he tried to conceal it. He was carefully examining the readings of the various instruments without missing any nuance of our body language and tone of voice. If anybody raised their voice or showed signs of nervousness, Korolev was instantly on the alert to see what was going on. 55

The seconds counted down to zero and Nosov shouted the command for lift-off. Chekunov immediately pressed the lift-off button. At exactly 2228 hours 34 seconds Moscow Time on 4 October, the engines ignited and the 272,830 kilogram booster lifted off the pad in a blaze of light and smoke. The five engines of the R-7 generated about 398 tons of thrust at launch. Although the rocket lifted off gracefully, there were problems. Delays in the firing of several engines almost resulted in a launch abort. Additionally, at T+16 seconds, the System for the Simultaneous Emptying of the Tanks (SOBIS) failed, which resulted in higher than normal kerosene consumption. A turbine failure due to this resulted in main engine cut-off one second prior to the planned moment. 56 Separation from the core stage, however, occurred successfully at T+324.5 seconds, and the 83.6 kilogram PS-1 successfully flew into a free-fall elliptical trajectory. The first human-made object entered orbit around the Earth inaugurating a new era in exploration.

With most State Commission members still in the bunker, engineers at Tyura-Tam awaited confirmation of orbit insertion from the satellite in a van set up about 800 meters from the launch pad. As a huge crowd waited outside the van, radio operator Vyecheslav I. Lappo from the NII-885, who had personally designed the onboard transmitters, sat expectantly for the first signal. The Kamchatka station picked up signals from the satellite and there was cheering but Korolev cut everybody off: "Hold off on the celebrations. The station people could be mistaken. Let's judge the signals for ourselves when the satellite comes back after its first orbit around the Earth." 57 Eventually the distinct 'beep-beep-beep' of the craft came in clearly over the radio waves and the crowd began to celebrate. Chief Designer Ryazanskiy who was at the van immediately telephoned Korolev in the bunker. The ballistics experts at the Coordination-Computation Center in Moscow had determined that the satellite was in an orbit with a perigee of 228 kilometers and an apogee of 947 kilometers, the latter about 80 kilometers lower than planned due to the early engine cut-off. Inclination of the orbit to the Earth's equator was 65.6 degrees while orbital period was 96.17 minutes. 58 Experts at the Moscow Center also ascertained that the satellite was slowly losing altitude, but State Commission Chairman Ryabikov waited until the second orbit was over prior to telephoning Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev.

Khrushchev's reaction to the launch was unusually subdued for an event of such magnitude and perhaps indicates that he, like many others, had not grasped the true propaganda effect of such a historic occurrence. He later related:

When the satellite was launched, they phoned me that the rocket had taken the right course and that the satellite was already revolving around the earth. I congratulated the entire group of engineers and technicians on this outstanding achievement and calmly went to bed. 59

The official Soviet news agency TASS released the communiqué Ryabikov had authored on the morning of 5 October. Published in the morning edition of Pravda, it was exceptionally low-key and was not the headline of the day:

For several years scientific research and experimental design work have been conducted in the Soviet Union on the c creation of artificial satellites. As has already been reported in the press, the first launching of the satellites in the USSR were planned for realization in accordance with the scientific research program of the International Geophysical Year. As a result of very intensive work by scientific research institutes and design bureaus the first artificial satellite in the world has been created. On October 4, 1957, this first satellite was successfully launched in the USSR. According to preliminary data, the carrier rocket has imparted to the satellite the required orbital velocity of about 8,000 meters per second. At the present time the satellite is describing elliptical trajectories around the Earth, and its flight can be observed in the rays of the rising and setting Sun with the aid of very simple optical instruments (binoculars, telescopes, etc.). 60

The Soviet media did not ascribe a specific name for the satellite, generally referring to it as 'Sputnik,' the Russian word for 'satellite,' often also loosely translated as 'fellow traveler.'

As the media tumult over Sputnik began to mount in the West, the Soviet leadership began to capitalize on the utter pandemonium pervading the discourse on the satellite in the United States. On 9 October, Pravda published a long report anonymously authored by Korolev and other designers detailing the construction and design of the satellite. 61 The parties responsible for this great deed were, of course, not named. Having been involved in the defense industry, the real job titles of the members of the Council of Chief Designers had always remained secret, although Tikhonravov and others had freely published under their own names through the 1950s on topics of general interest. This suddenly changed as their names disappeared from official histories. Beginning with the launch of Sputnik, of the four major contributors to the success of Sputnik, Korolev, Glushko, and Keldysh were referred in the open press as the Chief Designer of Rocket-Space Systems, the Chief Designer of Rocket Engines, and the Chief Theoretician of Cosmonautics respectively. The fourth, Tikhonravov, did not even have a pseudonym for himself.

The titles not only hid their identities, but also added an element of attraction and enigma to the men behind the world's first space program. New editions of histories of Soviet rocketry published prior to 1957 ceased to carry Korolev's name, and Soviet encyclopedias now merely listed him as heading a laboratory in an unspecified 'machine building' institute in the USSR. Glushko meanwhile was now said to be laboratory chief at the Moscow Institute of Mineral Fuels. 62 Korolev, certainly in recognition of the key role he played, was allowed to write in no less an important newspaper as Pravda, but under the pseudonym 'Professor K. Sergeyev.' His first article titled "Research into Cosmic Space" was published on 12 December 1957. Khrushchev claimed at the time that as the years went by "the photographs and names of these illustrious people will be made public," but that for the moment "in order to ensure the country's security and the lives of these scientists, engineers, technicians, and other specialists, we cannot yet make known their names or publish their photographs." 63


The timing of the Sputnik launch was motivated by a single reasoning: Korolev's drive to preempt a U.S. satellite launch attempt during the International Geophysical Year. At first, it was a competition with Vanguard. Spurred by the July 1955 announcement of U.S. satellite plans for the IGY, Korolev, joined by Tikhonravov and Keldysh, convinced both the government and the Academy of Sciences within a month to proffer support for a complex Soviet satellite project timed for launch before the IGY. A second jolt came as a result of miscommunication about a U.S. Army missile launch in September 1956. Putting the heavy scientific satellite on the backburner, Korolev's engineers put together a much simpler satellite to beat any American attempt. Once again, they timed it for launch before the start of the IGY. This 84 kilogram ball, although delayed several months, lifted off into orbit on 4 October 1957 and opened a new era.

The political and cultural shock bequeathed by Sputnik set events in motion that eventually gave rise to Apollo, perhaps the central artifact of the so-called 'space race' of the Cold War. Conventional wisdom suggests that the race began on 4 October 1957 and ended on 20 July 1969 with the Moon landing. But as we begin to dig deeper into the origins of the space race, it is clear that that race began long before the launch of Sputnik, in 1955, with the Eisenhower Administration's famous announcement on satellites. And perhaps fortunately for the Soviet Union, it was a race in which one of the participants, the United States, did not even know it was running until it was too late.