Sputnik: The space race's opening shot

The Russian's metal ball was propelled into orbit in 1957 and everyone watched with awe and unease...
23 June 2016

Interview with 

Richard Hollingham, space and science journalist, Space Boffins


It was the first Friday in October, 1957 at 19:28 that the great space began. sputnikSputnik was propelled into orbit by the Russians and everyone watched with awe and unease, as Richard Hollingham explained to Graihagh Jackson...

Richard - October 1957 with the launch of Sputnik was just a massive shock to the United States. It wasn't really just the fact that the Soviet Union had managed to put a large satellite (this is an 83 kg satellite) into orbit 560 miles above the Earth. Also the size of the rocket they used to launch that satellite. And it wasn't really about a space race, it was about the fact that if the Soviet Union could do this, they could undoubtedly launch nuclear warheads to the Continental United States, so that was a huge shock.

Graihagh - Science and Space Journalist Richard Hollingham who you may recognise from presenting the Space Boffins podcast too. But that wasn't the only thing that was shocking to the US...

Richard - The first attempt by the United States to get a satellite off the ground became known as "flopnik" among other things. It exploded on the launch pad and kind of rolled away beeping. It's quite comical to watch but it was a huge shock to the U.S. at the time and they finally managed to get a small satellite off the pad later that year.

Graihagh - So in some ways this was sort of muscle flexing?

Richard - It's totally about muscle flexing. In the U.S. they called it the "missile gab", so really great fear. I mean you have to imagine that time - the cold war, fear on both sides of the iron curtain. And so, yes, it was just all driven by politics really.

Graihagh - So Sputnik was first then but the U.S. launched their equivalent a month later, almost a bit like tit for tat in some ways.

Richard - Yes, the Americans finally managed to get a satellite in orbit. A much smaller satellite later in 1957, but then the Soviet Union still managed all the first. So, the first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin in April, 1961. The first woman in orbit June, 1963. Now the U.S. didn't manage to get the first man ins pace until the 5th May '61 and that was Alan Shepard but that was just a suborbital flight. So it was really sticking him in this tiny Mercury capsule on top of a launcher going up and then straight back down again. They didn't have the power to get into orbit.

So if you look, certainly at the early 1960s, where you had the flight of Valentina Shcherbakova, the first woman in space in June '63. You had the first three man capsule in 1964. The first space walk in March 1965. In February 1966, the first soft landing on the moon with a robotic spacecraft. They were all first by the Soviet Union so, undoubtedly the appearance, certainly externally, was that in the early 1960's the Soviet Union was leading the way.

Graihagh - Mmm. And I suppose that was really frightening for the Americans?

Richard - It was terrifying for the americans and you have to remember, at the time, no-one knew any of this stuff, so no-one in America quite knew what the Soviet Union was doing. They had their U2 spy plane so they could see the launch sites, they could guess what was going on. They had a pretty good idea but they didn't really know what was on the minds of the Soviets. The Soviets had a much better idea about what the U.S. was doing because almost everything in the U.S. program was open and public.

I think the most interesting point in the space race is around the mid 1960s where, to all intents and purposes, it appears as if the the Soviet Union is ahead and, yes they are, they've done all the first. But that period the Americans developed the Gemini spacecraft. So over just about 18 months, between March 1965 and November 19966, they launched a series of missions where they managed their first pace walk with Ed Wright. The managed to rondevu to spacecraft in orbit, they managed to dock spacecraft in orbit. They managed to spend 14 days in orbit; this tiny cramped spacecraft around the size of the front of a Volkswagen. But they managed to do all these things very quickly, in 18 months and it's around that period where you see the United States starting to edge ahead.

Graihagh - Was it the moon landing that won the race or was there more to it than that?

Richard - Essentially the Soviet Union, we know this now, lost the race in about 1966/67 when the N1 rocket, their giant rocket, their equivalent of the Saturn 5 rocket that took men to the moon, couldn't get of the launch pad - it exploded on the launch pad. It just did not work and at that point, effectively, the race was lost.

1968 onwards, the U.S. had won and there was no way that the Soviet Union was going to get to the moon although the Soviets did carry on their moon landing programme, at least in theory, into the 1907s but they were never going to get a person on the lunar surface.

Graihagh - And what were the implications of all this racing and I suppose. ultimately, the Americans winning the race?

Richard - The biggest implication, I think, of the moon race was this massive advance in technology.  It was actually, in retrospect, such an amazing period, such an incredible period. All the computers at mission control to enable these missions to happen, the development of rocket engines, the development of learning how to live in space. It's just incredible how much happened and how quickly it happened in that period of the space race. And then it kind of fizzled out rather quickly between Apollo 11 in 1969 and Apollo 17 (the last Apollo mission) in 1972.


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