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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The people who started the space age may not have realized they were making history. Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union sent the first satellite into orbit, which stunned Americans. But you find out more about the mentality of the Cold War when you learn why Soviets did not initially consider it such a big deal.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: The shock announcement on Radio Moscow spread alarm in the West that the Soviet Union was pulling ahead in technological development.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Man: The first artificial Earth satellite in the world has now been created. This first satellite was today successfully launched in the U.S.S.R.

FEIFER: But the great Soviet achievement was made possible largely because of one man. Sergei Korolev, called the father of the Soviet space program, started building rockets for the military after World War II. He started from scratch using captured German plans because the United States had already snatched away the top German designers.

Soviet rocket designer Boris Chertok first met Korolev in 1945 and later served as his first deputy. Now, a frail 95-year-old, Chertok is still incredibly lucid and remembers many details as if they had taken place yesterday.

Sitting inside a museum dedicated to his former boss, surrounded by photographs and memorabilia of the Soviet space program, Chertok says Korolev was not only a genius engineer, but also a gifted organizer.

Mr. BORIS CHERTOK (Sputnik I Designer, Soviet Union): (Through translator) He had a great ability to persuade people. He was also exceptionally single-minded and ruthless with subordinates. Deep inside himself, he felt a great responsibility not only to his people, but history itself.

FEIFER: But Korolev almost didn't survive Stalin's Great Purge. He'd been arrested in 1938 and spent six years in prison, partly in a Siberian labor camp where he lost all his teeth.

After the war, much of the Soviet Union was devastated and people were starving. But Korolev succeeded in persuading Soviet leaders that rockets were worth funding because only they could deliver a nuclear warhead to U.S. territory. Vladimir Gubarev writes about the Soviet space program.

Mr. VLADIMIR GUBAREV: (Through translator) It was utterly illogical that the Soviet Union should be first into space, but it happened, because unlike the U.S. rocket program, the Soviet one was more closely tied to the military.

FEIFER: It took years of intensive work before Korolev's rocket-design bureau had a prototype ready to fly. Boris Chertok oversaw missile assembly at the new Baikonur Cosmodrome on an isolated steppe in Kazakhstan, where he says conditions made work grueling.

Mr. CHERTOK: (Through translator) Sleepless nights, temperatures soaring to more than 120 degrees, dust storms, murky, undrinkable water, but I remember it as one of the happiest times in my life.

FEIFER: In May 1957, the designers tested the first R7 rocket. It crashed. The second prototype failed to launch. Only the fourth succeeded in becoming the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile. When the West failed to recognize the Soviet achievement, Korolev suggested sending a satellite into space.

Within weeks, Korolev designed a basketball-sized sphere he called, very simple Satellite Number One. It contained two powerful radio transmitters designed to emit beeps over the course of three weeks. Chertok says its shape was meant to capture people's imagination by symbolizing a celestial body. On October 4th, 1957, Sputnik I blasted off from Baikonur into Earth's orbit.

(Soundbite of Sputnik 1 launch)

FEIFER: Sputnik's beeps could be heard on radios around the world. But Chertok says the rocket design bureau members were so focused on the military aspects of their work, they failed to recognize its historical significance.

Mr. CHERTOK: (Through translator) We prepared the launch without any great expectations. If it were to succeed, great; if not, no big deal because our main task was to get back to building a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

FEIFER: Chertok says the world's reaction to Sputnik caught even the Soviet propaganda machine by surprise.

Mr. CHERTOK: (Through translator) As for Sputnik's creators, it took us four or five days to realize that from then on, the history of civilization could be divided into before the launch and after.

FEIFER: The names of Sputnik's designers would remain state secrets for years. Even inside the space program, the legendary Korolev was known to most only as the chief designer. Chertok says that caused him significant anguish. Korolev was also in charge of the effort that made Yuri Gagarin the first man in space in 1961.

Still, Korolev was publicly recognized only after his death in 1966. Sputnik's launch prompted massive American investment in education and technology that eventually landed a man on the moon. Chertok says he was professionally jealous of the American achievement, but also exhilarated at the incredible technological advances work on Sputnik helped launch.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

INSKEEP: You can see an interactive timeline of the space age by going to npr.org.

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