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This Week In Aviation History -- Soviet Launch

Late in the evening of October 4, 1957, a slightly modified ICBM left a launch pad in Russia.Late in the evening of October 4, 1957, a slightly modified ICBM left a launch pad in Russia. It was not aimed at a Western enemy, or at a test vehicle. This bulky rocket was headed for space, taking with it the first artificial satellite to be placed into Earth orbit. Sputnik 1 (PS-1) was a sphere of modest dimensions, but the footprint it left on history was enormous. Not only did it signal the first firm steps of sending man into space, it signaled the true beginning of the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States, and a new chapter in a bitter and raging Cold War.

The Design
The R-7 rocket, code-named SS-6 Sapwood by NATO, was utilized in the Sputnik configuration -- 'sputnik' is Russian for 'satellite.' The R-7 was a stage and a half design: The outer engines would drop off early in the flight, allowing the central rocket core to continue on. The outer 'drop off' stages used two vernier engines and the central core used four. The propellants used were Liquid Oxygen and Kerosene.

Sputnik 1 was some 22 inches in diameter (58cm) and 184.31 pounds (83.6 kg). It held two small transmitters, which broadcast on frequencies 40.002mz and 20,005mz. Power for the units came from three batteries that lasted for 21 days. The signals were sent from two pairs of antennae, equally spaced about the body of the spheroid and swept back to fit behind the rocket nose cone for launch.

The Team
The flight took place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (a.k.a. Tyura-Tam) in what is now Kazakhstan, near the city of Lenisk. The mastermind behind the project was Sergei Korolev, then only known as the Chief Designer. Korolev not only designed the rocket, but also supervised the creation of Sputnik, which was built without plans in the name of expediency.

The success of this small aluminum craft shook the world -- and with good reason. Trailing behind the satellite during its orbital passes was the central rocket core of the R-7. This converted ICBM proved, unequivocally, that the Russians could extend their nuclear reach around the world. Sputnik 1 continued to orbit the Earth until the thin atmosphere had built up enough drag to cause the orbit to decay. It burned up on re-entry on January 4, 1958.

R-7 Rocket: Length: 91 feet, 7inches (28 meters); Weight: 590,177 lbs. (267,700 kg).

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About This Author:
Brian Nicklas is a researcher and the Asst. Reference Chief in the Archives Division of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. As a freelance aerospace writer and photographer he has covered the space program to military aviation, and has flight experience in gliders to blimps. He is an alumnus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach in Aeronautical Studies and was recently named a Contributing Editor to Air&Space/Smithsonian Magazine. As an unlicensed pilot, he flies in whatever he can when not building airplane models.
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