How Sputnik Worked

Sputnik's Influence
The Explorer I satellite was the first satellite successfully launched by the United States.
The Explorer I satellite was the first satellite successfully launched by the United States.
Courtesy NASA

It's not an exaggeration to say that Sputnik's launch revolutionized the world. In particular, the United States felt pressure to step up research and development in industries ranging from rocketry to military development to computer science. While it's likely that the U.S. would have invested heavily in these fields given enough time, Sputnik put all of that on the fast track.

One reason the U.S. had to react quickly to the launch was to regain the confidence of its citizens. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the people of the U.S. were convinced that they lived in the most advanced nation on the planet. When the Soviets announced their successful launch of the world's first artificial satellite, Americans were stunned.

While the thought of lagging behind the Soviets in space exploration was troubling, another idea caused even more anxiety. If the U.S.S.R. had discovered a way to launch a satellite into space, they might also be able to fire a missile carrying a devastating warhead at the United States from across the globe. The superiority of the U.S. Air Force would no longer give the United States the upper hand in any future conflict.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower knew about Sputnik before its launch. He and the rest of the U.S. government underestimated the impact the satellite's launch would have on the American people. The first U.S. satellite project didn't help bolster American spirits either. The satellite was called Vanguard. It could collect scientific data and transmit information back to Earth, making it much more complex than Sputnik. Unfortunately, Vanguard's rocket vehicle suffered a major failure at launch and the satellite was destroyed. A few months later, Werner von Braun's team of engineers successfully launched Explorer I. The space race was on.

A launch failure results in the destruction of the Vanguard I satellite, which would have been the first U.S. satellite.
Courtesy NASA

In the late 1950s, computers were rare. There were only a few supercomputers located at various research institutions and universities. Eisenhower recognized the need to protect the information contained in various computing systems. If the Soviets were to fire a missile and hit a computing center, all that information would be lost. He appointed officials to look into a way to connect these supercomputers together into a network so that information was no longer centralized in little pockets across the nation. Eventually, this network of supercomputers evolved into what we call the Internet. In a way, a Soviet satellite is responsible for the Web page you're reading right now.

While Sputnik's success meant the United States fell behind the Soviet Union at the beginning of the space race, eventually the U.S. surpassed the U.S.S.R. The Soviets were successful in launching the first man and the first woman into orbit. But the U.S. was the only nation that succeeded in landing astronauts on the moon. While Sputnik marked the beginning of the space race, the Apollo 11 moon landing was the end of it.

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  • Gallagher, David F. (producer). "The Times Looks Back: Sputnik." The New York Times. 1997.
  • Garber, Steve. "Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age." NASA. Oct. 10, 2007.
  • "Sputnik." Russian Space Web.
  • "Sputnik Declassified." NOVA PBS Special.