Sputnik, Space Race Mirror a Personal Journey Fifty years ago, a basketball-sized satellite went into orbit. Sputnik's successful launch ushered in vast changes in space exploration and in relations between two superpowers. For one commentator, it was the beginning of a more personal journey.
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Sputnik, Space Race Mirror a Personal Journey

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Sputnik, Space Race Mirror a Personal Journey

Sputnik, Space Race Mirror a Personal Journey

Sputnik, Space Race Mirror a Personal Journey

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"Okay, my feet are out. Okay, he's out. He's floating free,"

This is the sound of my childhood.

"Am I in your view, Jimbo?"

Gemini Astronaut Ed White making the first American walk in space, in June 1965.

"Okay, I'm coming over; coming back to you!"

It was a few weeks before my ninth birthday, and there couldn't have been a better time to be a kid. Amazing things were happening — but they were things I'd been waiting for. I'd been reading about them in books on space travel, and seeing them on TV, in shows like Men Into Space.

That was the wonderful thing about growing up in the early years of the space age. Every day, science fiction was turning into fact. And by the summer I turned 13, I witnessed Neil Armstrong taking the first footsteps on the moon.

I knew all of this was happening because of the Cold War. Getting to the moon meant the U.S. had beaten the Soviet Union in the space race that had begun with Sputnik. But to me, it wasn't about geopolitics; it was about exploration.

By the time I was in college, Apollo had ended, and only robots were going to other planets. But there were still amazing explorations, and I got to be part of one: The first Mars landing, Viking 1 in July of 1976. I was at NASA's Jet Propulsion laboratory as a student intern on the mission, and I had a front row seat.

As I witnessed the first pictures from the surface of Mars, I felt the same passion for space exploration I'd had as a kid. And I've never lost it.

I know people still ask why space exploration is important, why we need to keep going. After all, the Cold War is long over. But the story that began 50 years ago is about something more important than national prestige or politics. It's about the very essence of who we are. We are made to be explorers. We're meant to make discoveries.

I can only imagine what today's kids will witness in the next 50 years in space.

Some of them could grow up to live on the moon, or take the first footsteps on Mars. What began with Sputnik is just the opening chapter in a story that has no end. It will last as long as we do, as long as we keep exploring.

Sputnik's Designers Didn't Fathom Its Impact

Sputnik's Designers Didn't Fathom Its Impact

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Sergei Korolev, called the father of the Soviet space program, designed the basketball-shaped sphere, now famously known as Sputnik. NASA hide caption

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Soviet rocket designer Boris Chertok served as Sergei Korolev's first deputy. Now 95 years old, he still lucidly remembers details about the beginnings of the Soviet space program. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

Fifty years ago Thursday, the Soviet Union started the Space Age by sending the first man-made satellite into orbit around the earth.

Sputnik changed history when it went into space on Oct. 4, 1957, but its designers didn't immediately see the launch as a major accomplishment.

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

"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.," the announcer said.

The Soviet's Chief Designer

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

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

"He had a great ability to persuade people. He also was exceptionally single-minded and ruthless with subordinates," Chertok says. "Deep inside himself, he felt a great responsibility not only to his people, but history itself."

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

Designing the First Rocket

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 rockets could deliver a nuclear warhead to U.S. territory. One Soviet writer, Vladimir Gubarev, observes how the Soviets beat the Americans in launching the first successful rocket.

"It was utterly illogical that the Soviet Union should be first into space," Gubarev says. "But it happened, because unlike the U.S. rocket program, the Soviet one was more closely tied to the military."

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.

"[It was] sleepless nights, temperatures soaring to more than 120 degrees, dust storms [and] murky, undrinkable drinking water," Chertok says. "But I remember it as one of the happiest times in my life."

In May 1957, the designers tested the first R7 rocket. It crashed. And a 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.

Introducing Space into People's Imagination

Within weeks, Korolev designed a basketball-sized sphere, which he called, very simply, 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 Oct. 4, 1957, Sputnik I blasted off from Baikonur into Earth's orbit.

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

"We prepared the launch without any great expectations. If it were to succeed, [then] great. If not, no big deal," Chertok says. "Because our main task was to get back to building a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead."

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

"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," he says.

More Space Exploration

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 he was also exhilarated at the incredible technological advances his work on Sputnik helped launch.