20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program

A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be put into outer space. The National Air and Space Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

19. Widely regarded as firing the starting pistol of the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States, Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite on October 4, 1957

Sputnik 1, launched in fact by an R-7 missile, became the first artificial satellite of our planet after its successful launch into an elliptical low Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. Launched during the International Geophysical Year, an international scientific project designed to encourage mutual progress, both the Soviet Union and United States proclaimed, within one week of each other, that they would successfully demonstrate an artificial satellite during the event. They designed a light-weight version of their original prototype, registering 100 kilograms rather than in excess of 1,000, the Soviets beat their American counterparts by 89 days.

Orbiting for a full three weeks, during which time Sputnik sent the first radio signals from outer space, the landmark satellite became nonoperational after its limited batteries depleted. Remaining in orbit for a further two months, Sputnik subsequently fell back into Earth’s atmosphere on January 4, 1958, after having completed a total of 1,440 orbits. Providing valuable information on the density of the upper atmosphere, as well as of the Earth’s ionosphere, the success of Sputnik is generally accepted as fundamentally altering global public perception of the Soviet Union’s technological capabilities and triggered the so-called “Sputnik Crisis” among Western nations.