How Sputnik Worked

Russian media alerted the world about the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite.
Russian media alerted the world about the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite.

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) launched an aluminum ball less than 2 feet in diameter into orbit. This set into motion a series of events that changed our world forever. The simple device marked a new era of technological achievements. It also shook the confidence of the American people, who at the time were convinced their nation was the most scientifically advanced country in the world.

That device was Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. It wasn't much to look at, and it didn't have any advanced features or functions. But it did mark the first time humans put a manmade structure into orbit around the Earth. And it also proved that the Soviet Union, the Cold War enemy of the United States, had developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system. Such a system could deliver nuclear warheads to targets on the other side of the world from the USSR. It made America's former air superiority obsolete.

Because the satellite broadcasted a simple radio signal repeatedly, amateur radio enthusiasts around the world could listen to this small object emit beeps as it orbited the Earth. There was no denying the Soviet Union's achievement. The evidence was available to anyone with a ham radio.

Sputnik's launch was responsible for many things. The perceived missile gap spurred America's government to accelerate its offensive and defensive missile programs. It also kicked off the space race -- a competitive period in which the USSR and the United States tried to be the first to achieve important milestones in space exploration. It was even indirectly responsible for the creation of the Internet. That's pretty astounding for such a primitive device.

How did the Sputnik program start, and who was involved? Find out in the next section.