On October 4, 1957, the world was changed when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into space. It shocked every country, but especially the United States, who felt a sense of technological and economic superiority during the post World War II boom. It raised many questions. Was the United States falling behind? Could it lead to the Russians arming space? Is space a worthy frontier for competition? The most burning question was if Russia could launch nuclear missiles at the United States from space using this technology, which was especially frightening for the country that, just 16 years prior, suffered a devastating attack at Pearl Harbor.
For three months, from its launch date until January of 1958, Sputnik orbited the Earth at 18,000 miles per hour. That was fast enough to circle the planet once every hour and 36 minutes. It transmitted radio signals back to Earth that were strong enough to be picked up by amateur radio operators, who would tune in several times a day as Sputnik passed over America.
America felt beaten. The Soviet Union had beaten it into space while it had become complacent as the world leader in technology. This “space gap” had profound effects on American politics. It resulted in the resignation of key military figures. It led to the election of John F. Kennedy, who emphasized the importance of the space gap and the Eisenhower and Nixon administration’s role in creating it. As president, Kennedy decided to put Americans on the moon. He did so believing that those who voted him in and were children when Sputnik launched would be willing to spend the money required to go into space.
Eventually, this competition between the Soviet Union and the United States would evolve into the Cold War, a nuclear arms race that threatened to destroy the world. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and the Cold War ended, Russia and the United States agreed to cooperate on space missions. They created the International Space Station program, where both countries send astronauts to live in space for months at a time in the name of science.
Russia did more than launch a simple beach ball-sized satellite that day. It also launched the Space Age and competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. It led to Neil Armstrong being the first to step foot on the moon. It led to Curiosity and Perseverance landing on Mars. It led to the International Space Station Program. It was a defining event of the 20th century and may be marked as the start of humanity’s ascent into outer space.